Digging into soil health

Southeast FFA’ers take on cover crop research project

Southeast FFA cover crop workshop
Southeast FFA members and community members in Portage County attended a cover crop workshop March 10, at Southeast High School, in Ravenna, Ohio. State Soil Specialist Steve Culman and Ann Brandt of Walnut Creek Seeds LLC, shared the benefits of cover crops and how to apply them. During the workshop, FFA Adviser Ben Campbell gave an update on a cover crop research project the chapter will be participating in with help from the Portage County Soil and Water Conservation District and a Storm Water Grant for Schools. (Catie Noyes photo)

RAVENNA, Ohio — Students of the Southeast FFA chapter in Ravenna, Ohio, have an opportunity to get their hands dirty while being a part of a research initiative that promotes soil health. The FFA chapter received a Storm Water Grant for Schools from the Portage Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in the amount of $26,600. The grant will provide funds for a three-year cover crop research project on the school property.

Ben Campbell, Southeast FFA adviser, said the school is allowing students to develop four acres of ground that is basically a junk pile. Topsoil had been removed from the ground during renovations of the school’s athletics facilities, and old tires, cement and metal scraps litter the area. Another challenge is poor soil quality in the county.

“This isn’t the hotbed for agriculture,” said Campbell. The cover crop project will give students an opportunity to incorporate agricultural practices on a smaller scale while learning how to improve soil health.

The proposal

The Portage SWCD approached Campbell two years ago about the stormwater grant. Other schools had been participating in soil improvement and stormwater projects but Campbell said, “they didn’t want me to do what the other schools had been doing.”

Lynn Vogel, stormwater educator, Portage SWCD, sought out the Southeast FFA chapter because she saw an opportunity to give students a hands-on research project. “It’s the only ag program in the county,” said Vogel, “and it’s an opportunity to actually have these students participate in research.”

All hands on deck

Campbell put the students to work on the project, having them help write the grant proposal. Southeast FFA just received its grant money in mid-March and will start clearing ground soon.

Once the ground has been cleared, students will begin collecting soil samples and prepare them for a laboratory analysis. From the analysis, students will determine what fertilizers and soil amendments will help restore the soil.

When it is time, the students will do the planting, said Campbell. Portage SWCD received grant money to purchase a small no-till drill that will be available to the FFA students, as well as community members in Portage County. Four different cover crop plots will be developed, with three grown in crops such as ryegrass, sorghum-sudangrass and tillage radish, while the fourth is left as is to be the control.

FFA students will test the soils throughout the three-year project to see how much organic matter is being restored to the ground. Students will also evaluate flow meters to see how much water is passing through the soil and how much is being retained by the soil. This will help students understand the erosion process and how to control runoff.

The goal is to have the area grown in prairie grasses that will attract migratory birds and other species. But in order to get to that stage, a lot of research is needed to determine how much organic matter is needed to restore the soil.

Steve Culman cover crop workshop
Steve Culman, state soil specialist and Ohio State assistant professor, OARDC, spoke with workshop attendees about the benefits of cover crops. Culman will be assisting Southeast FFA members with their cover crop research project over the next three years.


As part of its education initiative, in collaboration with Portage SWCD, the Southeast FFA chapter has held two cover crop workshops for area gardeners looking to improve their own soil quality. A workshop was held March 10, at Southeast High School that featured state soil specialist and Ohio State assistant professor, Steve Culman, and Ann Brandt of Walnut Creek Seeds. More than 60 people attended.

“We are teaching people methods and ideas on how to improve their land,” said Vogel. Culman shared the basics of cover crops and why they are important to soil health. He will also be working with the FFA chapter to assist them with their research throughout the project.

James Bierlair, Portage SWCD district coordinator, brought his grandson out to the workshop to hear about the FFA project that he may be a part of it next year. “I think it’s a win-win, for not only the students’ education, but the community as well,” said Bierlair. The FFA chapter hopes to have an update on their project by their annual banquet March 31.


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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.



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