USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service is partnering with Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., and eight other Midwest community colleges to support hands-on student learning about conservation.
Community College Alliance for Agriculture Advancement (C2A3) representatives and NRCS recently signed a national memorandum of understanding, agreeing to enhance and accelerate training and adoption of technologies and best practices for improved agricultural productivity and natural resources stewardship.
"This partnership provides the necessary framework to work together on common needs from a national perspective while also providing the flexibility to address local concerns," Nebraska NRCS state conservationist Craig Derickson says. "The more successful we are, the more likely we are to drive further innovation and adoption of practices and to impact the long-term sustainability of our nation's resources."
The agreement aims to reach not only agriculture students, but also the broader community through events such as field days. NRCS and the member institutions are developing local plans to address regional and statewide challenges, and to support student internships and other training opportunities for college faculty, producers and NRCS employees.
The colleges also are using the C2A3 network to share resources, knowledge and expertise with one another.
All C2A3 member institutions have college farms where they can implement conservation practices to educate and inform students and producers. Collectively, they are working on a grant through USDA's North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which seeks to increase awareness, knowledge and skills related to soil health, cover crops and no-till agriculture.
Newly developed content, such as videos and case studies, will help illustrate profitability, sustainability and productivity concepts. They will share these assets with all member institutions.
According to Aaron Hird, Nebraska NRCS state soil health specialist, Northeast Community College has implemented a Conservation Plan and Demonstration Field Project to showcase the benefits of applying soil health farming practices to their students, faculty, local citizens, farmers and ranchers, and NRCS employees.
"Northeast Community College piloted a new idea in 2020 and hosted an undergraduate internship to conduct a research inventory project," Hird says. "I supported the overall project by completing an inventory of the farm with Waylon Petsche, NRCS resource conservationist in Norfolk, and Robin Sutherland, NRCS district conservationist in Stanton. This resulted in the completion of a conservation plan and the project layout for the next five years."
Northeast Community College also is working with the Soil Health Partnership supported by the Corn Growers Association. They are conducting a cover crop versus no cover crop field trial with support from NRCS. Hird says that this proved to be a unique hands-on learning experience.
"The Northeast Community College intern gained working experience with our conservation planning process, specific conservation practices and activities, ArcGIS tools, GPS, field tools and our Rapid Soil Health Assessment Protocol by the Nebraska NRCS," Hird said. "The internship and the research inventory project were a success."
The C2A3 collaboration was formed to provide more ongoing education, training and demonstration projects for future farm producers and agricultural service providers to improve soil health, long-term productivity, resilience and sustainability.
C2A3 member institutions include Central Lakes College (Staples, Minn.), Clark State Community College (Springfield, Ohio), Illinois Central College (Peoria, Ill.), Ivy Tech Community College (Lafayette, Ind.), Northcentral Technical College (Wausau, Wis.), Northeast Community College (Norfolk, Neb.), Northeast Iowa Community College (Calmar, Iowa), North Dakota State College of Science (Wahpeton, N.D.), and Richland Community College (Decatur, Ill.).