Stark Sustainable Soils Initiative

Stark Sustainable Soils Project

Sponsor: Herbert W. Hoover Foundation
Principal Investigator: Rattan Lal
Co-PI: Heather Niekirk, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources for OSU Extension in Stark County
Postdoctoral Researcher: Lauren Baldarelli
Interns: Danielle DeYoung, Jalen Gilbert, and Nathan Shumaker (Monroe College), Nitesh Kandel (Youngstown State University)


Started in 2020, this five-year project aims to identify, validate, and fine-tune site-specific soil management practices which enhance and sustain agronomic productivity and nutritional quality, while also creating climate-resilient cropping/farming systems for small and medium-size land holder farmers. The project takes place in Stark County, Ohio, and is sponsored byt the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation with world-renowned scientist Dr. Rattan Lal as Principal Investigator (PI). Dr. Lal will partner with Heather Neikirk, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources for OSU Extension in Stark County, to ensure successful local participation and impact, and dissemination of the project’s outcomes throughout Stark County, the State of Ohio, the country, and the world.

This on-farm and farmer-led participatory field study will be conducted to test the hypothesis that adoption of system-based conservation agriculture will restore soil quality, enhance and sustain productivity and nutrition, and create climate-resilient soil and farming systems. The new knowledge gained from this project will be of international significance and include:

  • Information relevant to small landholders, in Stark County and around the world, regarding climatesmart farming practices;
  • Soil and site-specific information regarding key parameters that are indicators of soil quality for small and medium farms in Stark County;
  • The rate of soil carbon sequestration for the recommended practices. This information may be relevant for future carbon credit payment programs and provisioning ecosystem services; and
  • Research data on the impact of recommended practices to the nutritional quality of farm products.

Stark Sustainable Soil Initiative MarkThe study will be conducted on Stark County's predominant soil type, Canfield Silt Loam. The moderately well-drained soil covers about 1.24 million acres in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Management problems on Canfield soils include: poor soil structure of the surface layer and its susceptibility to slaking, crusting, and low water infiltration rate; risks of accelerated water erosion; loss of soil fertility; drought stress; shallow rooting depth, low water and nutrient use efficiency and susceptibility to drought-flood syndrome due to changing and uncertain climate. The study will be conducted within small farms (10-50 acres) and mid-sized farms (51-100 acres) and involve three types of farming systems:

  1. Corn-soybean (conventional plow based tillage and no cover crop)
  2. Corn-soybean-cover crop and with conservation agriculture
  3. Corn-soybean -pastures (with conservation agriculture, and compost)

Postdoctoral researcher Lauren Baldarelli handles corn samples for measuring and weighing.One Canfield wooded site will also be selected. All sites will be replicated, totaling 12-18 farms and a wooded site. A localized work-group will generate, review and select sites according to the parameters established by the project. Members comprising this working group may include: representatives of the project team; the agricultural technician and board supervisors from the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and representatives from the local USDA service center.

Following selection, we will conduct a baseline survey of the biophysical and socioeconomic conditions of participating farms. In early spring, soil samples will also be obtained at depths of 0-8,8-16,16-24 and 24- 40 inches to establish baseline properties. Samples will be analyzed for physical (texture, bulk density, aggregation, soil moisture retention characteristics, hydraulic conductivity, plant available water capacity, and erodibility) and chemical properties (soil organic carbon and total nitrogen, pH, electrical conductivity, cation exchange capacity and plant nutrient (macro and micro) concentrations by the standard methods of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA,1996;2002). Agronomic measurements will be made for crop yield (grain, stover and hay yield) and grain samples analyzed for protein and micro nutrient composition. Soil analyses will be repeated during the 3rd and 5th year of the study. All results will be statistically analyzed.

Dr. Rattan Lal will provide conceptual and scientific support of the project and supervise the field and laboratory processes and measurements, data synthesis, and interpretation. He will participate in town hall meetings with the farm community and present findings internationally, including to United Nations agencies. A postdoctoral researcher will report to Dr. Lal to implement the project, conduct soil sampling, and perform field and lab measurements related to soil properties, plant growth, agronomic yield, and nutritional quality. The postdoc will also supervise three Stark County undergraduate student interns who will provide support across the project, and two Stark County field assistants who will support the field sampling work.

Co-PI Heather Neikirk

Heather Neikirk will lead community engagement activities, including an annual Healthy Soil Education Series for the public and an on-farm field day to highlight the project and best practices for area producers. Heather will engage, train and utilize local junior high and high school students through participatory research collection, educational programming, and career exploration focused on soil management, manure (nutrient) management, and increasing knowledge of the relationship between soil health, water quality, and healthy food production. She will develop an applicable on-farm field research protocol that can be offered through OSU Extension’s E-Fields Program. Results will be disseminated through annual reports, fact sheets, technical publications for peer reviewed journals, and through state, regional and national scientific meetings where we will share the results obtained and their implications regarding the sustainable management of soil and agriculture.

The Stark Sustainable Soils Initiative is a project sponsored by the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation as part of their environmental area of focus.

Collaboration with Kent State

The Stark Sustainable Soils Initiative is conducted in parallel and in collaboration with two separate projects about remote sensing in collaboration with Kent State, each funded by other generous grants from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. Information about these collaborations can be found on the Remote Sensing with Kent State page.

In the News


Journal Articles
  • Bridges, KM, Das, S, Neikirk, H, Lal, R. Influence of manure and tillage on soil carbon and soil organic matter in silt loam soils of corn–soybean–forage systems. J Sustain Agric Environ. 2023; 2: 337–345.
Presentations and Conference Papers
  • Bridges, Kathleen and Das, Srabani. 2021. Stark Sustainable Soil Initiative: an on-farm research collaboration. 1 October 2021. Palmer Lecture Series Colloquium, Department of Geology, Kent State University. Kent, Ohio, USA
  • Baldarelli, Lauren. 2023. The effects of tillage practices and fertilizer applications on farms in Stark County, Ohio. 3 November 2023. Lal Carbon Center Seminars. CFAES Rattan Lal Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration, The Ohio State University. Columbus, Ohio, USA

(Click image to access)

Impacts of fertilizer management on soil health of small farms in Stark County, OH Beneath the Surface: Investigating soil microbial communities and enzyme activites in a Canfield silt loam under various tillage and fertilizer management systems

Project History


Postdoctoral Researcher: Kathleen Bridges

2021-2022 Postdoctoral Researcher: Kathleen Bridges (until March 2022)
Postdoctoral Researcher: Naba Raj Amgain (March 2022)
Research Assistant: Camryn Ottey
Intern: Jimmy Wells
2022-2023 Postdoctoral Researcher: Naba Raj Amgain (until March 2023)
Postdoctoral Reasearcher: Lauren Baldarelli (March 2023) 
Interns: Danielle DeYoung, Jalen Gilbert, and Nathan Shumaker (Monroe College), Nitesh Kandel (Youngstown State University)