Youth Agricultural Scientists Bridge Soil Science with Food Security

A group of 5 people standing around a man demonstrating near a barrel

John Duke speaks to a crowd of youth agricultural scientists in Springfield, MA in July, 2022.

By Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, NOFA/Mass Food Access Director

What do microbes, soil analysis, no-till gardening, cooking and food preservation have in common? They are all parts of creating a strong food access system with its basis being soil health.

John Duke, NOFA/Mass Board Member. and Ruben Parrilla, NOFA/Mass Soil Technical Assistance Coordinator, paid a visit to the youth agricultural scientists at Tapley Garden last week to discuss compost tea and demonstrate the life that lives in the soil under the microscope.

During the intensive agricultural summer program at Tapley Court Apartments in Springfield, which is supported by NOFA/Mass’s Food Access Program and Home City Housing, youth leaders get exposure to soil health, food preservation, cooking and nutrition education while supporting the community by harvesting food from the quarter acre garden. This season, the focus is on the vibrant microbial life in the soil and learning how to increase soil fertility through developing IMOs (Indigenous Microorganisms), learning about the garden’s soil health through soil health tests, and creating more fertility by using cover crops, DIY amendments and mulching.

John and Ruben have provided much of the microscopy analysis training for the youth leaders during 4 recent sessions. So far, the youth leaders have learned how to identify some microbes under glass (nematodes and fungal strands) and create nutrient rich compost teas using a simple DIY compost tea brewer. In a special session with the youth leaders, community gardeners from the Spring of Hope Community Garden, and urban farmers from the Samad Gardens Initiative in Hartford, CT, participants practiced making compost tea and extracts that were then used in the Tapley Garden.

Youth agricultural scientists learn about soil health.

When asked why it is so important to work with the youth on developing compost teas and using the microscope to analyze soil, John mentioned this, “When I work with a farmer on a farm, that is working with one person and maybe a few of their workers. But when we work in community gardens and with the youth, that knowledge grows, and more people can access this knowledge”. This work is a key component of increasing food access as it helps communities, particularly communities of color, heal their soils and grow healthy food.

The NOFA/Mass Soil Technical Services team is excited to continue to help cultivate soil health and microbe knowledge as a part of this year’s NOFA Summer Conference at Hampshire College from August 5-7. On Saturday, August 6th, John and Ruben will be joined by CT NOFA’s Monique Bosch to perform soil microbial analysis on samples brought in by conference participants. Some of the youth leaders who have been working in Springfield with John and Ruben will be joining in on the microscopes to help locate and identify microbes. There are youth that have learned how to conduct soil health tests and they will be onsite to demonstrate how accessible these tests are for community gardeners, urban growers and backyard gardeners. It will be an exciting setup, with several microscopes and television monitors available to showcase what they can find in the soil samples. Bring a bag of your soil or compost to see how your microbes are looking, and whether the soil health management practices you’ve been doing are paying off, or if you should talk to someone on the Soil Technical Services team about how to do more to encourage the right microbial populations.

Ruben Parrilla (left) and John Duke (right) demonstrate soil health testing.

Other members of the soil technical services team, including Sister Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, Laura Davis, Jane Hammer, and Christine Manuck, will also be available throughout the day to discuss analysis and interpretation of soil chemical testing and the soil health assessments that NOFA/Mass offers. Bring a soil test to the conference for some feedback. The Soil Technical Services table will be on-site next to the registration booth all day on Saturday, so don’t miss the opportunity to check out some microbes and find out more about what is in your soil and how to farm for soil health.

If you want to learn more about the NOFA/Mass Food Access Program, please visit or contact Sis. Anna Muhammad, NOFA/Mass’s Food Access Director, at If you want more information on NOFA/Mass’s Soil Health Technical Assistance program, please visit or contact Ruben Parrilla, Soil Technical Assistance Coordinator, at