Building Confidence and Relationships through AFT’s Soil Health Specialist Training Program
In the ninth grade, Lorie Ames caught a glimpse of her future career during a science class presentation that showed a crop technician out in the field with a farmer. Lorie hadn’t grown up on a farm herself, but she was surrounded by several dairy farms growing up. “Little did I know when I was hiking in the corn field that’s what I’d be doing for my future job,” Lorie said.
Passionate about education, Lorie went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Biology from SUNY Geneseo, along with three state certifications for adolescent, elementary, and biology education. When she struggled to find a stable teaching position after graduation, an opportunity came for her to work for Western New York Crop Management Association, or WNYCMA, as a summer scout. It was there that she met Dave DeGoyler, who became her boss and mentor. At the end of the season, she accepted a full-time position as a field technician, and has since been promoted to junior crop consultant, working towards becoming a crop consultant.
In the spring of 2018, Dave recommended that Lorie should apply for the “Practical New York Soil Health Specialist Training,” a program with American Farmland Trust and Cornell’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health Program, sponsored by the Northeast Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) program. She was excited for the opportunity, but a little skeptical given her existing knowledge of field crops and soil health.
Staying true to her background in education, Lorie came to the program willing to learn something new. “I was humbled by my experience,” Lorie said. “I realized that I knew bits and pieces, but I really didn’t know the meat of it, or even the origin, and it was neat to see that progress before my eyes.” When Lorie became a junior crop consultant, her role transformed from working solely in the field to building relationships with the farmers who steward those fields and helping them to make decisions for their farms. In a way, she’s come full circle in her quest to teach biology.
Working directly with farmers is Lorie’s favorite part of her job, but also one that was less familiar to her than dealing directly with plants and soil. “The most valuable thing I gained from the program is confidence,” Lorie said. “Prior to this, if I was questioned by a grower I’d have been a little intimidated. Now I feel really well equipped to give advice and lead them in the right direction.”
Lorie was looking forward to hosting her very first soil health field day in August 2020 as part of the training program, but the arrival of COVID-19 complicated her plans. With the support of AFT, Cornell, NESARE, and her own advisory committee, the event pivoted to a virtual tour of cover crop plots, which can be viewed here.
Through her work, Lorie has been fortunate to work with several innovative growers, including dairy and crop farmer Jay Swede of Swede Farm LLC, a farm in AFT’s Genesee River Demonstration Farms Network. But Lorie has also begun reaching out to farmers who are on the fence and need more information on the benefits of investing in soil health practices. “The hardest part is convincing growers that even if the upfront costs are a bit much for some, it is actually worth it as you progress through the practices,” Lorie says.
The networking aspect of the soil health specialist training was another valuable piece of the puzzle for Lorie. As part of a cohort of 20 participants from all across the state, she was able to interact and learn from others in the industry, including Debbie Aller, PhD, of Cornell Cooperative Extension Suffolk County, who shared the unique challenges of soil health on Long Island with the group.
Looking forward, Lorie will continue to implement what she’s learned in the classroom back in the field with Western New York farmers. “We’re really big on cover crops and inter-seeding right now,” Lorie says. “It’s really neat to be on the forefront of that.” But leading the way also means learning as you go. One of the biggest takeaways for Lorie was how to customize cover crops to the specific farms and their soil’s constraints. “Cover crops were something that people were just throwing out there and seeing what happened,” Lorie says. “AFT showed me that you could design different cover crop programs for different growers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, it’s definitely unique to each farm.”
Learn more about the New York Practical Soil Health Specialists Program.
This program is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under sub-award number ENE18-153-32231, and with support from the members of American Farmland Trust.