AoR 98: Advances in Soil Health at SoilCon 2023, with Molly McIlquham

Trying to stay up on the most recent developments in soil health? SoilCon, a free virtual conference, will address the latest research to help people put soil health principles into practice for regional systems. In this episode, Molly, an organizer of SoilCon, shares more details on the speaker lineup and the Washington Soil Health Initiative. SoilCon 2023 will be held on Feb. 14 and 15, with daily sessions running from 8 a.m. to noon.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today on the Art of Range is Molly McIlquham. We're here to talk about an event happening during Washington Soil Health Week, and there's-- soil health has been given quite a bit of attention in the last decade or so including United Nations International Year of Soils in 2015.We're currently in the United Nations Decade of Restoration. I believe there was a Decade of Soil declared by the International Union of Soil Scientists that may still be in progress. There's been a lot of talk about soil. Molly, I don't think we've met but welcome to the show.

>> Thanks, Tip. Happy to be here.

>> We both work for Washington State University, is that right?

>> Yup. Correct.

>>And how long have you been with WSU and what do you do that has you connected with soil?

>> Yeah. So, I'm actually been with WSU since June of 2020 but I was a master's student. So, I came over to work on a master's project with Deirdre Griffin LaHue which was at a remote-- a radio camp-- sorry, satellite campus of WSU over in Mount Vernon which is on the western side of the state. And I was working on a soil health project in Washington vineyards looking at what soil health indicators are most relevant for vineyard managers and what are soil health values that are even reasonable for vineyards in Washington. A lot of times, growers are comparing their soil health to values that are coming from the Cornell Soil Health Lab but the climate that they're collecting those samples from is completely different than what we have in Washington. So, my project was essentially to calibrate the scoring metrics that we use specially-- particularly for vineyards in Washington. So, that's where I got my start atWSU. Then, I graduated with my master's just here last summer of 2022. And then I was fortunate enough to get this position as an extension coordinator with WSU and I specifically work -- I work for the Center for Sustaining Ag and Natural Resources. But more specifically for the Washington Soil Health Initiative sharing all the work that's being done from the initiative and managing all the outreach and communication that goes on there.

>> That's interesting. That's why we haven't met yet.

>> Yeah.

>> You've been here for not so long. Well, that's an interesting comment about orchard soil health. I see similar inclinations I guess in the world of agriculture, crop agriculture. Soil health gets spoken of as if it's something that doesn't have any boundaries. In other words, you can always push soil health further and you can-- you know, you could achieve say on a sandy loam soil in Washington with bed rock at six inches down the same thing that you could get, you know, with a soil somewhere where there's a lot more soil depth and in a whole different climate. And something that was said to me a number of years of ago by a soil scientist that stuck with me, I think he said that soil-- what's possible with a given soil is limited by soil depth and soil texture and precipitation. Meaning that those are variables that we really don't have a whole lot of control over. You can increase some variables like soil organic matter but not infinitely. There are some boundaries there and it's interesting that that phenomenon sort of occurs across different soil types. What-- yeah, what has been the response of tree fruit folks to the idea that they can't achieve whatever metrics are being reported by Cornell growers?

>> Yeah. It's been really interesting and a large part of my project was interviewing the vineyard managers. So, I specifically worked in vineyards. We-- the project I'm working on is a larger project called the State of the Soil Assessment where we have seven different -- or 700 soil samples collected over 50 different cropping systems. So, orchards are included in there, dryland, rangeland. But specifically for vineyards, it was a little bit challenging to talk with them and be like, "Well, like, you're really not going to be able to get up to 5% organic matter unless your --" but in some cases, it is possible if you're irrigating and you're putting in a lot of organic amendments. But really, you are limited, right, just like you had said, by your climate. That's one of the biggest factors. And what was interesting that we looked at as well is that in a lot of the agronomic systems, because of irrigation, because of organic amendments, we actually have higher organic matter levels in those soils than they would made of, than we put them into production which is kind of an interesting concept to think about. Like we're trying to increase the soil organic matter above what it already had and that's -- when you put it in that framework, it's easier for the managers to kind of think about like, "OK, so I've already increased it quite a bit relative to what it was natively."

>> The event that we were going to talk about is -- are you calling it SoilCon 2023?

>> Yes. SoilCon just more generally but -- yeah.

>> Got it. And that's part of the Washington Soil Health Initiative?

>> Correct. Yeah. So yeah. It's sponsored by the Soil Health Initiative, CSANR, the Center for Sustaining Ag and Natural Resources, and the grant that we received to put on this event is sponsored by Western SARE.

>> Got it. Maybe let's start with the Soil Health Initiative. Am I right that that came from some funding from the 2019 legislative session to do some specific things in pursuit of soil health? What is the Soil Health Initiative?

>> Correct. Yeah. So, the Washington Soil Health Initiative which we like to call WaSHI as an acronym, it's primarily a tri-agency partnership between Washington State University, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and then the Washington State Conservation Commission. And together, those agencies are working broadly to improve soil health across Washington and we're taking a multi-pronged approach to this to make it happen from research to outreach, education, and then providing grant opportunities and technical support. And so, when we received that money from the legislature, we add special wording that we needed to start a long-term research site in Mount Vernon, in the northwestern side of Washington state. And so, one of the main projects that the WaSHI is working on is establishing this long-term agroecological research and extension sites. And so there's four soil health sites that we have established currently. One in Mount Vernon that's focused on Northwestern Washington potato rotation and then evaluating soil health based on that. We also have one at WSU Wenatchee which is a Central Washington tree fruit system. They're looking at cherries and apples, and how they can improve soil health long term in the orchard system which has been kind of challenging to think about so far. We also have one at WSU Puyallup which is also looking at diversified organic systems, and then also integrating livestock into that. And then, WSU Prosser which is evaluating wine group systems. And all of these sites represent major agroecological cropping systems or production regions. And so-- and at these sites, we're ensuring like we're including moonshot treatments like at the Mount Vernon site we have one where potatoes are grown for three years but that's something that we could strive for. Like we're including treatments in these long-term sites that are really being thinked about using right now. But because they are long term, we have to think continually and to think about like, "What could we be doing in the future?" And then -- so, with these long-term sites, we have two more that actually just got funded. One at WSU Wilke Farm which is kind of look a dryland system and integrating livestock. That's over on eastern side of the state. And then, WSU Othello which is going to evaluate irrigated potatoes. So, that's one of the main projects that WaSHI is working on. We also have the State of the Soil Assessment which I briefly touched on collecting samples across the state. And then one of the other support programs -- one of the programs that we're supporting as WaSHI is the Sustainable Farms and Fields Program which is an incentive program to increase the adoption of greenhouse gas reducing practices. And they just had their first round of proposals and received 51 applications and are looking to fund more projects. They had -- they need more money to be able to fund other projects. So, that's really great and we're happy to support that program as well. So, those were the three main projects that WaSHI is working on right now to be able to improve soil health across the state.

>> Yeah. It's exciting. I've heard a bit of it but haven't been in the middle of it. And so, I had not heard the recent the update on those. Well, what is SoilCon and is this the first annual?

>> Yeah. So, SoilCon --

>> And will it be annual?

>> Yeah. So, SoilConis a free, two-day virtual event, you can listen to your tractor, on the road, at your home, wherever you're comfortable. It actually started in 2020. And so, when we received the grant from Western SARE in 2018, our goals were to train ag professionals, researchers and producers in Washington and broader in the PNW about managing soil health in their region. And it was planned before-- as we were planning in the beginning, it was going to be an in-person event. But because of COVID, we moved to an online virtual framework or setting. And so, 2020 and 2021 were both held online and we actually found some benefits in that. We could get speakers from all across the world even, and we could potentially-- and we have been able to reach a greater audience because people have been able to tune in from their tractors or from their home. So, this is going to be our third year. 2023 will be the third year of SoilCon and February 14th and 15th is what it's scheduled for.

>> Great. This will include the website in the show notes, but just to throw what's out there now, what is the website if the folks are interested in virtually attending this and listening in?

>> Sure. So, you can head to soilcon and you'll have the information about ways you can get involved with SoilCon and then where to register. It will take you to a different page to be able to actually register and look through the sessions. But that URL is longer, so is where you can go.

>> Great. Yeah. I do think that there are some interesting tradeoffs between doing an in-person event versus a virtual event. The-- I think there are some obvious benefits to doing in-person events where there's just no substitute for live human interaction in terms of accomplishing things and having a conversation. I was part of a-- there was a International Grasslands Congress that was scheduled to be in Nairobi I think in 2020 and it got cancelled. So, it got bumped to 2021 but there was still quite a bit of COVID. And so, the other side of the world had their way a little bit later than we did. And so they were actually getting hammered in 2021. So, it got moved to an online-only event, it's a virtual conference. So, I'm displaying a virtual poster in a virtual booth space in a virtual meeting and it was incredibly unsatisfying. I think maybe one person stopped by and, you know, we had a brief chat but didn't really have anything to do with the substance of what my poster was about. So I -- there's ways in which it can completely crash but I've also -- you know, this podcast is evidence of the fact that I think there's quite a bit of value in doing virtual education particularly with stuff that, you know, has some shelf life with content that has value after the event. So, my next question is, is this going to be recorded? Because I think being able to access some of the information after the facts sort of like you could queue up a podcast episode from a year ago and listen to it, I think that has quite a bit of value.

>> Yeah. Absolutely. And yeah, everything is going to be recorded. We'll be putting it up on our YouTube channel which will also be linked on our website. So, you can view those at any time. It will take us probably a couple weeks to get those videos after SoilCon all wrapped up and edited but those will be available for the foreseeable future. And I do want to say, because we know that there are so much that is lacking when you're not at an in-person meeting, right, just like you had said, we're trying to think of new ways that we could make this virtual event kind of an in-person event. So, this year, we're trying something new. We're going to have remote viewing sites. So, at some extension centers, people are going to be hosting and broadcasting SoilCon. And then, people can go and view SoilCon at that site. So, you can be sitting next to your peer or stranger and you can chat about soil health with them while viewing the online event. And so, we have a few of those remote sites set up already-- or setup and that information will be coming on the website in the next few weeks here as well. But, you know, if you want the remote viewing location and you don't see your sites on the website when we update it in the next couple weeks, reach out to your local extension agent because if they know there's demand to view it at their site, then they would be more willing to host. So, I think that could be a way. If you want an in-person experience for an online event, that could be a way to go.

>> You know, I think that's a great option. And I jumped to a question before I fully got around to saying I don't anticipate that SoilCon will be a virtual flop despite my experience with the Grasslands Congress in Africa. What I want to say was I think there's a ton of-- I found, at least in the world of livestock producers, it's more and more difficult to get people to come to a space and spend a day or two of pretty valuable time in one spot. And-- so, I do think that there's definitely a lot of value in doing an event like this when it's done well and this definitely looks like it's set up to be done well. So, I'm excited. I will not be able to listen because the Society of Range Management is having their annual meeting at the exact same time, but I look forward to seeing some of the content which brings me to the next question. Is there a particular focus with SoilCon in 2023? And let's talk through some of the topics that will be spoken about.

>> Yeah. So, our main overarching theme is taking principles to practice. So, thinking about like what are the carbon and nitrogen principles that we're using, and how can we take that to the field and really-- we can really build on those principles. So two pieces that I'm really excited about for this year's SoilCon is we have a producer panel with growers from all across Washington - from vineyards to dryland to diversified potato rotations - are really diverse group of producers and they're going to talk about how-- what challenges they've had with cover cropping or managing residue in their systems, and what challenges they've had and what steps they've taken to then make new decisions and try something new. And another part that I'm excited, the second part that I'm excited about is the academic roundtable where we're going to discuss also cover crops and residue management, but more broadly like are cover crops something that we should really try to implement in areas that are really challenging? Or are there other practices that we should be doing? So, I'm excited to hear the discussion from experts on that topic. Overall, we have 16 speakers or panelists from across the country, not just the PNW, which is exciting to be able to bring in some experience from and bring in some new ideas and think about innovative ways we might be able to do things here in Washington. Some other talks that I'm excited about, we have-- one of our first talks on Monday is going to be about the history kind of decisions in fertilizer and amendments and how that's really kind of change, how we apply amendments to the land now. We also have a few just like baseline, you know, principal concepts about nitrogen management, what microbes are-- how can you, you as the microbe, to be able to, you know, use your nitrogen cycle more efficiently, really getting back to the basics on that. I would say those are few talks that I'm pretty excited about. We also have an update from the Sustainable Farms and Fields and a few updates on cost share and other things like that that will be kind of sprinkled in.

>> Yeah. That sounds intriguing. I think one of the reasons why it's worth throwing this out here on a, you know, a national podcast as opposed to a local one is that Washington state has some of the most geographic soils and climate diversity in the country. We've got everything from, you know, nearly temperate rainforest that people are trying to grow stuff in all the way down to five-inch rainfall, you know, sage grass desert and in-crops grown in that environment as well, nearly every soil type under the sun. And I want to say that there are between 300 and 400 minor crops for which Washington State is the highest producer of that minor crop. And so, there is a massive range of crops that are grown in Washington state. And for that reason, I expect that a lot of this content would be applicable to people nearly anywhere in the country. And of course, soil health principles are being talked about as if they're applicable everywhere and it seems like that would have significant value.Do you have any thoughts about the applicability of what's being talked about here outside of Washington state?

>> Yeah. I think-- so I that was primarily one of the reasons we tried to bring in speakers from across the country was to be able to take some of these practices and apply them. I think a large part of the discussion in the academic roundtable is going to be about how we can't generalize these practices across the country and how it really -- it is challenging. They are regionally based and that's what makes soil health really a challenging thing to talk about and why a lot of times when people are like, "We can plant cover crops everywhere," that's a challenging thing. And it's not reflective of how you can manage your soil health effectively on the land.So, I think we'll have a few sessions that do address that specifically. Yeah.

>> Yeah.Well, if you have time and you have it in front of you, maybe list some of the actual speakers because that may-- there be-- may be some names in there that would get folks interested, then we can describe a little bit of what they're going to be talking about.

>> So yeah. We have a great lineup of speakers and a few of them that maybe some of your local Washington listeners might know. We have Michael Brady who's an economist.He's going to be talking about our cover crops economical. He has a big project working on that right now specifically in Washington. We have Andy McGuire who's going to be moderating the academic roundtable and really get that discussion flowing about thinking critically about how we can manage soil health. We also have our new Distinguished Endowed Chair of Potato Soil Health, Steve Culman. He's going to be moderating the producer panel that will include Patrick Ron [assumed spelling], Doug Poole, Darren Morrison [assumed spelling] and Brad Bailey, growers from all across Washington. We have Aaron Silva [assumed spelling] and Hero Gollany who are going to be participating on the academic roundtable.And then, a few other Washington state researchers who are going to be talking about those carbon to nitrogen basics.

>> Yeah, that's exciting. I recognize a number of those names even though the world of rangeland ecology doesn't overlap that much with agronomy.But if I see that Andy McGuire is talking about soil health and systems, I definitely would want to tune in.

>> Definitely. We were excited. He's willing to -- he's going to be joining us.

>> Do you have a listing available of the places where it's going to be broadcast through a local extension office available to you at the moment?

>> Yeah.So, we don't have all the confirmed sites just yet. I do know that Andy is going to be hosting a site at the Othello honeybee pollinator location and then there's a few other sites that are going to be on the western side of the state that I'm still working to get confirmed. That information should be up on our website in the next couple of weeks here.Definitely before the new year.

>> OK.Well, that's exciting. We wouldn't have talked about it here if I didn't feel like it was going to be something that would be of value to most people and most-- at least in Washington state and I think across the country. Most farmers are at least somewhat diversified where the person who's got a cow-calf operation also grows hay and thinks about soil health and people are thinking about soil health in pastures, and people are more and more thinking about how to integrate livestock back into cropping systems. Kind of feels like a back to the future sort of moment where -- with the cost of inputs going up and likely going to stay up there is very much renewed interest both in looking for different ways to maintain or boost soil health and replace expensive fertilizers. I don't -- I just remember there was a question I wanted to ask you that you may or may not know the answer to. I feel like I read somewhere and not too long ago that the Palouse say 100 years ago when it was initially being farmed was famous for having some of the highest soil erosion rates in the world. And of course, that's the home of Washington State University.Is that a rural myth as opposed to an urban myth? Or am I remembering that correctly?

>> Yeah. You know, I have also heard that in the framework of talking about like the NRCS and how -- I used to work for the NRCS. And so a lot of people talked about the Palouse and I really didn't know about it when I was living in Wisconsin. And so, moving out here, I got to see the Palouse and I was like, "Whoa, that makes sense. There's a lot of erosion.Those are really steep slopes." But I don't want to confirm, I don't know that for sure but that is also something that I've heard.

>> Sure. And my point in that is that the home -- the geographical home of Washington State University is a location that has lots of soils that were, you know, wind-blown, sediments that have been deposited by the great Missoula floods and were extraordinarily fertile and also extraordinarily deep. And as you mentioned, they're pretty steep. And so, you know, this area has been the home of some major soil health losses and so I'm excited to see WSU, my employer, you know, kind of leading the way. Not that there's nobody else talking about soil health but this is kind of an iconic location in the world of soil conservation and it's exciting to see some innovation and significant outreach coming from here.Well, give me the website one more time and then we'll close this out.

>> All the information about SoilCon can be found at soilcon.And just a reminder, SoilCon will be taking place on February 14th and 15th 2023 from 8 to 12 Pacific Standard Time.

>> Excellent. I do hope that lots of people tune into that and you can also -- if I run a Google search or whatever search, SoilCon, Washington SoilConwill get you there as well.

>> Yup.

>> Yeah. I really do hope people listen in from their tractor, their pickup, or their saddle and learn a lot.

>> Yeah. I'm excited.Thanks for letting me share about it on here.

>> Yeah.Thank you again, Molly.

>>Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers.Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural,Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

Mentioned Resources

Washington Soil Health Week website

SoilCon2023 info and registration

Learn more about the Washington Soil Health Initiative here.

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