November 13, 2020 -- Confessions of a Soil Health Content Consultant

Gasp! I didn’t grow up on a farm.  I didn’t grow up having grandparents who farmed.  I grew up in central Topeka half my life; then, I experienced rural living for the first time when my family moved outside of Topeka near Meriden, Kansas. It was a dreamy property, a 100-year-old farmhouse with almost an acre to roam.  The former owner of this home planted various fruit and nut trees, which we enjoyed along with the well-established grapevines.  

When we arrived, the first thing my parents did was put their personal touch on the place.  My mother was a landscaping whiz and incorporated edible plants such as lavender, leafy greens, and basil into her designs. My stepdad was the tomato plant king. Even asking one summer, “Are 48 tomato plants too many?”  Admittedly, gardening was pretty nerdy to a teenager who was more interested in football games and hanging out with friends.  The gardening bug had not bitten me at this point in my life.

Fast forward a few years and I’m walking up to visit an open house at a property I labeled “The Donkey Ranch.”  In my marital bliss of just a few short months, my husband urged me to consider a home he found out in the country. Almost 7 acres and the home to about 45 donkeys. The online listing had multiple pictures of the donkeys on a very overgrazed pasture, that was mostly bare dirt. There were cactus and yucca plants and not much green living grass. But there was a garden plot outside the donkey pen.  A lush, robust plot showcasing a very vibrant asparagus patch. Maybe it was the newlywed speaking, perhaps it was my pregnant lady food craving for asparagus, but I said yes to The Donkey Ranch.

(Caption: Pasture area with composted donkey manure pile in the background)

When we closed on our new homestead, the previous owners gifted us two donkeys as a token of appreciation. The mama, named Daisy, was pregnant just like me. (Insert funny story of how Daisy birthed the largest baby donkey ever, named Poohead). I don’t know for sure if this was the turning point in my life, becoming a donkey rancher, but living out in the country with a plot of land to grow food and a family changed the core of who I am today.

(Caption: Shannon Gnad holding newborn son, Jack, while the Donkey’s overlook.)

My husband and I spent the next ten years working to improve this property. The home needed work. The lawn was a mixed species of native weeds. There was little landscaping keeping the topsoil from running off around the foundation of the house every time it rained, and the back pasture was severely overgrazed. We had a lot of bare dirt. We also realized we’d have to deal with significant hard compaction in the garden plot, making gardening harder than we anticipated.  

Although Shannon and I both shared a passion for gardening, we realized we had a lot to learn about growing food on a large scale. Shannon joined the Pratt County Master Gardener program through Kansas State University Research & Extension, where he learned horticulture pest and weed management techniques.  We agreed early on that our homestead would adopt a chemical-free philosophy, and therefore we decided to advance our learning about alternative farming methods. What we found, we now know as the Soil Health Principles.  When you follow these principles, you can regenerate your soil.

(Caption: Author Jess Gnad picking asparagus, 2017)

What are Soil Health Principles? Soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”The soil health foundation consists of five principles: 1. soil armor; 2. minimizing soil disturbance; 3. plant diversity; 4. continual live plant and root; and 5. livestock integration. Over the course of many years, we adopted the Soil Health Principles on our backyard homestead.  We began to leave “litter” in the garden by leaving leftover plants and adding fall leaves.  We minimized tillage and after 7 years went completely no-till, which was hard for Shannon who felt a deep sense of accomplishment by tilling. This was overcome by eventual decreased weed pressure and fewer pests.  We switched to using heirloom seeds and made sure we grew crops like clover for ground cover.  We added in permanent herb patches for continual living roots.  We sometimes even let our flock of chickens graze the garden. 

As an agronomist and K-State Master Gardener, my husband Shannon knew we could utilize the donkeys’ manure to create our compost to amend the soil.  So that’s what he did.  A few hours every night after work that fall, a borrowed tractor made a compost we affectionately called our “black gold.”  We flipped, turned and rotated that pile of manure, which made our compost many times over ten years. We even considered taking some of it with us when we sold the property in 2019,  but decided, just like the donkeys were  gifted to us, we’d leave our masterpiece to the next owners of The Donkey Ranch.   

Learning the Soil Health Principles set the foundation for my work as a soil health content consultant. Seeing is believing and getting to witness healthier soil that grew more plentiful crops, reduced pest and weed pressure, and eliminated compaction was proof enough. Working with companies like High Plains Journal, Regen Farming News and Soil Regen, I’ve been able to share the soil health message with many others. And this Jan. 20 to 21, 2021 we will share the message at Soil Health U. Join us!


November 3, 2020 -- Conference Season

Each year I look forward to “conference season” beginning after harvest in November until spring planting. During this time of year, farmers and ranchers connect, share, and exchange ideas on how to improve their operation for the next season. Along with some tall tales and maybe a few cold ones, we gather to share our peaks and pits of farming.

We all know 2020 has brought many changes to the way we live, and expect 2021 to hold its own host of obstacles. For sure,  we must continue our upward trajectory toward better farming practices to ensure our rural communities’ sustainability, so the show must go on. Since July, I’ve worked with a dedicated team at High Plains Journal to determine the best delivery platform for Soil Health U 2021. Although we can’t predict the future, we will host this event in-person as of right now.  

This fourth year of Soil Health U will cover innovative education, breakout sessions, producer panels, and a robust soil health trade show, bringing industry knowledge and forward thinking to attendees. Leaders in soil health have been slated to speak, including Rick Clark, a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Farm Green; Kris Nichols, Ph.D., soil microbiologist and founder and principal scientist of KRIS Systems Education & Consultation; and Jimmy Emmons, a third-generation farmer and rancher, regional coordinator for the Southern Plains Region- FPAC within USDA.


Registration is now open for just $99. Student registration is $50. 

Secure your spot at Soil Health U 2021 by registering now!

The Soil Health U event team monitors the COVID-19 situation closely and is committed to providing attendees and exhibitors with the latest information in a timely manner. The health of attendees and exhibitors is our priority. We will continue to monitor the COVID situation by working with state and local leaders to ensure our attendees’ and staff’s safety. Our community’s safety and well-being is our top priority, and we are committed to maintaining regular communication regarding changes to the delivery of the event. 

COVID-19 Updates can be found HERE.  

High Plains Journal sponsors soil Health U & Trade Show. Since 1949 HPJ has been the weekly source for news, markets, and commentary for farmers and ranchers in 12 states across the Plains. 

High Plains Journal has a proven track record of combining internationally acclaimed soil health education with top-notch innovation exhibits during this two-day event. Whether you are well versed in regenerative agriculture or brand new to the concept, there’s something for everyone at the 2021 Soil Health U & Trade Show. At Soil Health U, attendees will learn how to unleash the power of healthy soil.

Currently hailing from Manhattan, Kansas, Jess Gnad’s path in soil health started with a curiosity about healthy food options in rural communities. It was while she was living in Pratt, Kansas, over the past decade and starting her family with her husband that Jess worked to form a farmer’s market, a local food coop, and a Regenerative Ag School Garden with support from Annie’s Homegrown Grants for Gardens. She served as an executive board member for Kansas State University Research and Extension, and as a healthy food/farm consultant with Pratt Regional Medical Center’s Health Coalition. She counts her background as a row crop farmer and an avid gardener growing fruits and vegetables as her foundation for her passion for regenerative agriculture. Jess is a “Jess of all trades” and can also be found coordinating Soil Health U and working as an advisor for Soil Regen.