The Soil Life Short Course: Empowering Ag Professionals to Recognize, Quantify, and Conserve Beneficial Soil Animals

Progress report for ENE19-158

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2019: $114,618.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2022
Grant Recipient: The Xerces Society
Region: Northeast
State: Oregon
Project Leader:
Eric Lee-Mader
Eric Lee-Mader
Co-Leaders:
Stephanie Frischie
The Xerces Society
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Project Information

Performance Target:

50 of the 240 providers who learn to recognize, quantify and conserve essential invertebrates in soils through project short courses will provide soil management guidance to 100 farmers (each reaching at least two 100-acre farms), collectively impacting 10,000 acres. 18 of the 80 farmers who attend these courses will report changing some farm management practices based on what they learn through the course.

Introduction:

Agriculture is moving towards a more holistic understanding of soil biology, however, the focus has remained largely on the microbiology of soils, and there is a lack of information and training resources available for farmers and service providers about the hundreds of thousands of animal species found in the world’s soils. This lack of information limits the ability of ag professionals to rapidly assess which animals are present on a farm, which are missing, and what those findings may indicate.

These animals, as diverse as annelids, springtails, pocket gophers and firefly larvae, are not simply sustained by soil but rather are inseparable from it. Along with fungi and bacteria, animals create and maintain soil. Animals perform keystone roles in soil such as physical churning and the creation of pore space, decomposition and cycling of complex organic matter, carbon mineralization (including activities that sequester anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions), rapid removal of livestock waste, predation of weed seed and crop pests, and many other functions.

Despite the diversity and abundance of soil animals, many ag professionals do not have training in the identification and conservation of these animals. In one research review, the authors found that among conservation journals devoted to animals, only 8% of articles dealt with soil fauna.

With a greater understanding of soil animals, service providers will be better able to assess the health of soils and make management decisions that can enhance crop productivity and ecological function. For example, research demonstrates that soil invertebrates can be used as bioindicators, providing feedback on pollutants and chemical or physical disturbances in soil. With the ability to recognize which animals are present or absent in a soil sample, ag professionals—even those with only modest training—can quickly make informed judgements to address potential problems.

Through a comprehensive short course, we will train ag service providers in the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, use of soil animals as bio-indicators, and conservation strategies to enhance their numbers. This short course will include a classroom component and fieldwork (including field scouting exercises) and will be supported by a conservation handbook developed specifically for this course (also downloadable for free).

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

The Soil Life Short Course will introduce diverse, critically important animal life found in soils through three components:

  1. Our online classroom curriculum will cover common soil invertebrates, their ecology and role in soil health, conservation strategies to increase their abundance and diversity (e.g. cover crop formulation and non-chemical management of soil pathogens), and an overview of additional resources.
  2. The online course will include a session that builds skills in identifying and scouting for soil invertebrates, through a combination of formal scouting protocols (e.g., pitfall traps to collect and count soil-dwelling beetles) and informal observational techniques (e.g., the use of Berlese funnels).
  3. Farming with Soil Life: A Conservation Guide to Beneficial Soil Invertebrates will be a 100+-page handbook based upon the format of our popular guides, Farming for Bees and Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects. This handbook will detail the physical characteristics, life histories, ecology, and benefits of common groups of soil invertebrates and strategies to enhance their numbers. With clear, engaging photographs, this will be a valuable field ID guide for course participants.

 

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

RECRUITMENT
600 Agricultural service providers in eight NE SARE states will receive course announcements (January 2020–June 2021).

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
600
Proposed Completion Date:
June 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

In February 2021, we will begin recruiting ag professionals and farmers for our audience. We have developed a contact list of over 70 organizations and institutions who will help us to disseminate short course information.

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

LEARNING THROUGH EDUCATION PROGRAM: 240 providers and an additional 80 farmers will attend a half-day online course. Eight online courses will be offered, each with targeted content and guest speakers for unique agricultural areas within the NE SARE region. The participants will achieve the learning objectives outlined below. Participants will receive a PDF of the Farming for Soil Life handbook that includes: 1) profiles and photographs of 70 soil invertebrate groups and their identification, 2) an overview of soil invertebrate sampling techniques, 3) a section on management practices for the conservation of soil invertebrates, and 4) an introduction to the connection between soil invertebrates and soil health. In the day-of-course evaluations, 90% of participants (288 of 320) will indicate intention to change behavior (February 2021–October 2021).

Online Course Learning Objectives:
a. Gain an expanded understanding of soil animal diversity, including the ability to recognize the 12 most common groups of soil macroinvertebrates and to describe their role in soil health
b. Have greater, in-depth exposure to the life cycles and ecology of soil invertebrates, including the ability to describe the basic life cycles of at least 12 invertebrate groups and their role in the food web
c. Receive training in how to recognize common groups of soil invertebrates, particularly those with agricultural importance, including the ability to describe basic invertebrate body parts and physical characteristics
d. Learn to conduct hands-on field scouting and sampling of soil animals to evaluate species diversity in agricultural settings. This training will guide them toward being able to carry out that same scouting and sampling independently after the course
e. Learn how invertebrate diversity may be used as a rough bioindicator of soil health, and learn to compare the diversity of soil animals across fields with differing management practices; be able to draw general conclusions about soil health based upon the invertebrate groups present in a soil sample
f. Understand practical, science-based conservation strategies to help increase the abundance and diversity of soil animal life

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
80
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
240
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We have completed writing the Farming for Soil Life handbook, which is on track for publication and use in the short courses. The handbook is nearly 120 pages with over 230 photographs/figures, and is currently undergoing design and layout. The short course curriculum is also underway, with 4 hours planned of 6 modules. The curriculum covers soil basics; insect diversity and function; threats to insect life; main groups of soil invertebrates, how to recognize them and the connection to soil health; methods for scouting, monitoring, and observing; management practices which support or threaten soil life; programs and resources, including e-materials; Q & A; conclusion, evaluation and what to expect for follow up from Xerces at 3 and 6 months. At least one guest speaker (a researcher or mentor farmer) will also present during the online short course.

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

SUPPORT FOR FOLLOW-UP ACTION
The 240 service providers and 80 farmers who participate in the short courses will receive follow up emails from Xerces approximately 3 months and 6 months after the short course connecting them with local Xerces staff working either in their state or in adjacent states as a local point of contact. (April 2021–January 2022).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
80
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
240
Proposed Completion Date:
January 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

In progress. Milestone #3 is dependent upon the completion of Milestone #2.

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

40 ag service providers will request and receive support from Xerces over the phone or by email. These support requests may range from advice geared for a specific farm, to tips for delivery of the open-source curriculum for their clients. (April 2021–February 2022).

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
40
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

In progress. Milestone #4 is dependent upon the completion of Milestone #2.

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

VERIFICATION
60 providers and 20 farmers will respond to a follow-up survey 3 to 6 months after attending the Short Course to report how they incorporated knowledge gained through the course into their education or farm management practices. (May 2021–March 2022).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
60
Proposed Completion Date:
March 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

In progress.  Milestone #5 is dependent upon the completion of Milestone #2.

 

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which the service providers (and farmers if indicated above) reported a change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness::

This is in progress.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
50
Target: actions the service providers will take:

50 of the 240 providers who learn to recognize, quantify and conserve essential invertebrates in soils through project short courses will provide soil management guidance to 100 farmers (each reaching at least two 100-acre farms), collectively impacting 10,000 acres.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
100
Target: amount of production these farmers manage:

10,000 acres

Verified: number of farmers the service providers reported educating/advising through their actions:
0
Verified: amount of production these farmers manage:
0
Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

N/A These activities are in progress. 

Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers

Target #1

Target: number of farmers who will make a change/adopt of practice:
18
Target: the change or adoption the farmers will make:
18 of the 80 farmers who attend these courses will report changing some farm management practices based on what they learn through the course.
Verified: number of farmers who made a change/adopted a practice:

0
Verified: size/scale of farms these farmers manage:

n/a These activities are in progress.
Performance target outcome for farmers narrative:

For the reporting period, we did not deliver any training to farmers.

Additional Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Additional Outcomes Narrative:

One new working collaboration was developed with Dr. James Nardi of the University of Illinois. He will be providing review of the draft of the Farming for Soil Life handbook. Another new collaboration is with the Northeast Organic Farming Association – New Jersey (NOFA NJ). They had originally planned to be an in-person short course host; now that the courses will be held online, they will instead help to disseminate announcements and recruit attendees for the online course.

Success stories:

N/A

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

N/A

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.