Final report for ENE19-158
As interest, understanding, and appreciation of soil health and soil ecological communities continue to grow, soil invertebrates—animals such as ground beetles, woodlice, springtails, and their many companions, have received less attention than soil microbes. The Farming with Soil Life curriculum helps to fill that gap, focusing on the diversity of major invertebrate groups that live in temperate agricultural soils. The curriculum consists of a handbook (PDF) and a series of short course training modules (delivered live online and recorded). The handbook and the recorded modules share the same content: the basics of soil science and soil health; status of soil invertebrates; profiles of over 70 soil invertebrate groups including identifying characteristics, where they live, ecological roles, and other interesting facts; management practices that support or threaten soil invertebrates; scouting and monitoring techniques; an overview of Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) programs for creating and conserving quality habitat for soil invertebrates; guest presentations about current applied scientific research on soil invertebrates and farmers’ perspectives on managing for soil health; and additional resources for further learning.
Originally planned for in-person short courses with hands-on learning at farms throughout the Northeast, the curriculum was adapted to eight online short courses to accommodate travel and in-person restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 620 participants in the online courses reported improving their skills and knowledge across seven domains including an understanding of practical, science-based conservation strategies to help increase the abundance and diversity of soil invertebrate life, and their comfort level conducting hands-on field scouting and sampling of soil invertebrates. To quote one participant from their post-course evaluation: “It was great to get a concentrated short course on this under-studied but important subject!”. To measure the impact of the training, we circulated a follow-up survey three to ten months after each course. Despite an overall low (6%) response rate to the survey, those responses confirmed that ag service providers who attended the online course had provided technical support to 154 additional farmers, who in turn manage a total of 34,192 acres of farmland. As of November 2022, the National SARE Communications team has initiated the process to publish the Farming with Soil Life Handbook as a SARE book. This development ensures the longevity and further dissemination of practical information about soil invertebrates and how to farm with soil life.
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.
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 trained 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 included a classroom component and fieldwork (including field scouting exercises) and was supported by a conservation handbook developed specifically for this course (also downloadable for free).
The Soil Life Short Course introduced diverse, critically important animal life found in soils through three components:
- Our online classroom curriculum covered 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 overviewed additional resources.
- The online course included a session that built 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).
- Farming with Soil Life: A Conservation Guide to Beneficial Soil Invertebrates is a 100+-page handbook based upon the format of our popular guides, Farming for Bees and Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects. This handbook details 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 is a valuable field ID guide for course participants. This handbook has been chosen by Andy Zieminski of National SARE Communications to be adapted (minimally) to book format as a SARE publication. As of November 2022, this development has been initiated with informal approval through email. An initial estimate of the number of copies that will be printed has not yet been made, but we are excited to offer the book version of the Farming with Soil Life handbook as a resource that will continue to reach ag professionals, farmers and others into the future.
600 Agricultural service providers in eight NE SARE states received course announcements (March 2021–October 2022).
In March 2021, we began recruiting ag professionals and farmers for our short courses. We developed a contact list of over 70 organizations and institutions to disseminate short course information. In October 2022, we completed recruitment for all of the eight courses.
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–November 2022).
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
Figure 1. Learning Outcomes for Courses #1-#8. “1” is low and “5” is high.
- Ability to recognize and name common groups of soil invertebrates
- Ability to describe the ecological role of common groups of soil invertebrates in soil health
- Comfort level conducting hands-on field scouting and sampling of soil invertebrates
- Ability to compare the diversity of soil animals across fields with differing management practices
- Ability to draw general conclusions about soil health based upon the invertebrate groups present in a soil sample (use of soil invertebrates as bioindicators)
- Understanding of practical, science-based conservation strategies to help increase the abundance and diversity of soil invertebrate life
- Knowledge of available Farm Bill programs and NRCS practices to support soil invertebrates and soil health
The Farming for Soil Life handbook was published in April 2021 and includes nearly 120 pages with over 230 photographs/figures. We created a four-hour short course curriculum, with one hour of each course customized for a specific region and/or topic. The curriculum, designed for remote delivery through Zoom, covered 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; and an interactive chat, quizzes, and a Q & A period. In addition, many of the courses featured presentations from guest speakers on special topics in soil health.
In 2021, we delivered six short courses and in 2022 we delivered two short courses. The details are listed below. A total of 680 people attended the courses, including 222 service providers and 50 farmers. Other attendees included ecologists, biologists, foresters, entomologists, master gardeners, and community members. Some attendees did not specify their affiliation.
Live closed captioning was included for each short course to improve accessibility. Recordings of the courses are available on the Xerces Farming with Soil Life playlist on YouTube. The first module is available here.
Course #1, 28 April, 2021.
Regional Focus: Northeast
Special topic: NRCS practices for supporting soil life
Presenters: Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society, Kelly Gill – NRCS and The Xerces Society
Course #2, 19 May, 2021.
Regional Focus: Northeast
Special topic: NRCS practices for supporting soil life
Presenters: Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society, Kelly Gill – NRCS, The Xerces Society
Course #3, 16 June, 2021.
Regional Focus: New York
Special topic: Measures of soil health and case studies about Return on Investment from NY farms
Presenters: Aaron Ristow - American Farmland Trust, Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society
Course #4, 30 June, 2021.
Regional Focus: Vermont
Special topic: Modifying crop practices to maximize the return on cover crops
Presenters: Heather Darby - University of Vermont Extension, Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society
Course #5, 15 September, 2021.
Regional Focus: Massachusetts
Special topic: Soil health practices in vegetable production systems
Presenters: Steve Munno - Massaro Community Farm, Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society
Course #6, 13 October, 2021.
Regional Focus: Northeast
Special topic: Soil health and climate resilience in agriculture
Presenters: Sara Via - University of Maryland Extension, Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society
Course #7, 24 August, 2022.
Regional Focus: Northeast
Special topic: Integrated Pest Management and Soil Health
Presenters: Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society, John Tooker – The Pennsylvania State University
Course #8, 9 November 2022.
Regional Focus: New York, Northeast
Special topic: (New York/Northeast Region): Soil animals and microbial processes
Presenters: Stephanie Frischie – The Xerces Society, Jennifer Hopwood – The Xerces Society, Kelly Gill – NRCS and The Xerces Society, Kyle Wickings – Cornell University
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 three months and six 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 (July 2021–November 2022).
Following each of the eight short courses, we contacted participants by email, providing course-related resources and contact information for Xerces technical staff.
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–November 2022).
From April 2021 to November 2022, we provided support to 132 requests via email. These included answering specific questions about soil invertebrates and providing links to the short course curriculum materials and recordings. Due to the nature of these support emails, we were not able to capture how many of these were ag service professionals, farmers, or inquiries from other interested parties.
60 providers and 20 farmers will respond to a follow up survey three to six 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).
Three to six months after the short courses, we sent a follow up survey to the 261 participants of the first four short courses to collect information and measure how they had used what they learned in the handbook and course curriculum with the clients they serve. A total of 16 people responded to this survey. Ten of these were agricultural service providers, one was a farmer, one was an agronomy student, and four were Master Gardeners.
In the fall of 2022, we sent the follow up survey to participants of all courses (#1 - #8). A total of 36 people responded to this final survey. Ten were agricultural service providers, nine were farmers, two were researchers, one was a home gardener, one was a professional gardener, one was a landscape architect, and twelve were Master Gardeners.
For follow up survey results, please see Performance Target Outcomes for Service Providers and Farmers and Additional Outcomes Narrative sections.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Participants in the project’s educational activities:
We used an evaluation form immediately after the course for participants to rate their change in knowledge, before and after the course, for seven different competencies. This was on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 equaling no skill or knowledge and 5 equaling very skilled or knowledgeable. The results of these self-assessments are summarized in Figure 1 under Milestone #2.
Sixty-seven ag service providers completed a post-course evaluation and 100% of them reported an increase in their knowledge of course topics compared to before the course. Based on the responses from the post-course evaluation, 55 of 67 (82.1%) of ag services providers indicated they plan to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices in order to support soil invertebrates and soil health.
Nine farmers completed a post-course evaluation and 100% of them reported an increase in their knowledge of course topics compared to before the course.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
50 of the 240 providers who learned 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.
- 37 Curricula, factsheets and other educational tools
- 81 Consultations
- 9 On-farm demonstrations
- 6 Online trainings
- 7 Published press articles/newsletters
- 2 Study circles/focus groups
- 6 Tours
- 18 Webinars/talks/presentations
- 16 Workshops/field days
To gather information on outcomes, we emailed a Google Form with a set of follow up survey questions to course participants. Although we sent the follow up survey to 261 and 620 short course participants in the early and final surveys, respectively, the response rate was only 6% (16 responses) and 5.8% (29 responses).
Given the unexpectedly low response rate to the early follow up survey, we opted to offer a chance to win a hard copy of the Farming with Soil Life Handbook or other Xerces' publications as a strategy to incentivize a greater response rate to the final follow up survey. Despite this incentive, the response rate for the final survey was 5.8% (29 responses). Of the 29 people who responded to the final survey, ten were agricultural service providers, five were farmers, two were researchers, one was a home gardener, one was a professional gardener, one was a landscape architect, and nine were Master Gardeners.
We attribute this low response rate partly due to the effects of online training compared to in-person courses. In our past deliveries of in-person short courses prior to the pandemic, those experiences formed connections and relationships which engendered more ongoing contact and consequentially, a higher rate of survey responses.
Of the ten service providers who completed the final survey, nine reported using the knowledge and skills from the Farming with Soil Life course in their work to advise and educate farmers. These service providers reported applying the course information in the following ways:
“I included information from this short course in a presentation on soil health to a group of beginning farmers who were learning about organic fruit/vegetable production.”
“I blogged about it and pollinators and soil health are an integral and important part of all our messaging.”
“I provided clients with the interseeding wildflowers for pollinators document and beneficial soil invertebrates booklet.”
“This material has helped me with promoting no-till vegetable production in urban ag.”
Through their educational activities and services, these service providers reached a total of 154 farmers who manage 34,192 acres of land.
In addition, some service providers reported adopting soil life practices directly. The survey asked the question, “Have you implemented or adopted practices related to soil invertebrates and soil health, based on your experience with the Farming with Soil Life course materials?”. Of the ten respondents, three (30%) replied “Yes”, two (20%) replied “No”, and five (50%) replied “Not applicable, as I don't farm or otherwise make direct decisions about management practices”.
Those who replied “Yes” reported making the following changes (respondents could choose multiple changes):
- Adjusted management (tillage, synthetic fertilizer use, mowing, crop diversity, cover crops, continuous living root, incorporate livestock) where possible to support soil invertebrates and soil health (2 respondents).
- Created or enhanced additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground-nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields) (2 respondents).
- Changed or reduced pesticide use to lessen negative impacts on non-target soil invertebrates (2 respondents).
- Adapted pest management decisions and approaches to reduce negative impacts on beneficial soil invertebrates. (This could be changes in the type or timing of pest management practices.) (1 respondent).
Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers
To gather information on outcomes, we emailed a Google Form with a set of follow up survey questions to course participants. Ag service providers responded that 78 farmers they support made changes to their practices to improve support of soil health and soil invertebrates. These farmers collectively manage 6,534 acres of farmland.
In addition, the ten farmers who completed the survey reported that they had implemented practices related to soil life and soil health on a total of 364 acres of farmland, based on the Farming with Soil Life course materials. These farmers reported making the following changes after participating in the short course (respondents could choose more than one change):
- Adapted pest management decisions and approaches to reduce negative impacts on beneficial soil invertebrates. This could be changes in the type or timing of pest management practices (6 respondents).
- Changed or reduced pesticide use to lessen negative impacts on non-target soil invertebrates (5 respondents).
- Adjusted management (tillage, synthetic fertilizer use, mowing, crop diversity, cover crops, continuous living root, incorporate livestock) where possible to support soil invertebrates and soil health (6 respondents).
- Created or enhanced additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields) (5 respondents).
- Inquired and/or enrolled in NRCS conservation programs that support soil invertebrates (see Table 1 in Farming with Soil Life handbook) (2 respondents).
Additional Project Outcomes
In addition to agricultural service providers and farmers, our survey included responses from five other attendees who did not identify themselves as either agricultural service providers or farmers/landowners. While these individuals may not have been our target audience, they too incorporated and implemented the knowledge gained from the course in multiple ways. For example, these respondents reported that they have made the following management changes:
- Adjusted management (tillage, synthetic fertilizer use, mowing, crop diversity, cover crops, continuous living root, incorporate livestock) where possible to support soil invertebrates and soil health
- Created or enhanced additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields)
- Considered pesticide impacts on soil invertebrates when making pest management decisions
- Adapted pest management decisions and approaches to reduce negative impacts on beneficial soil invertebrates (This could be changes in the type or timing of pest management practices.)
- Changed or reduced pesticide use to lessen negative impacts on non-target soil invertebrates
- Inquired and/or enroll in NRCS conservation programs that support soil invertebrates
One new working collaboration was developed with Dr. James Nardi of the University of Illinois, who provided a 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.
We received two grants that built on the Farming with Soil Life curriculum, from Organic Valley and the Blooming Prairie Foundation. These grants allowed us to offer the course to farmers in other regions and to adapt the short course curriculum for urban farmers.
As the pandemic-related travel and event restrictions lessened, we were able to leverage funds from these additional grants to organize and host one in-person course at an urban farm and to participate in delivering training on soil invertebrates to Spanish-speaking audiences at another soil health event.
A selection of quotes we received from course participants is below. While our evaluation tools did not collect information on participants’ specific locations, we did ask participants if they work in a rural, suburban, or urban setting with a population less than or greater than 100,000 people.
“Really enjoyed this short course and felt it was a great complement to my understanding of soil microbiology, as now I have a more well-rounded understanding of soil ecology than I did before.” – Extension Educator, working in an urban context with a population greater than 100,000. 16 June 2021 course.
“Neighbors are also adopting practices I shared with them.” – Farmer, farming in an urban context with a population greater than 100,000. 28 April 2021 course.
“It would be great if you could repeat the seminar.” – Master Gardener in a suburban setting, 28 April 2021 course
Please note that participant information, including names and contact information shared within the Participants section of this form, is private and not to be shared in any manner. The Xerces Society does not collect participant mailing addresses for distribution. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.