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: 11/30/2022
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 (March 2021–May 2022).

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
600
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
374
Proposed Completion Date:
May 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

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. To date, we have completed recruitment for six of the eight courses. The two remaining courses will be held in the spring of 2022 and recruitment for those will begin a month in advance.

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
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
31
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
180
Proposed Completion Date:
June 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:
Graph showing self-reported changes in knowledge from Farming with Soil Life short course participants
Figure 1. Learning Outcomes for Courses #1-#6
Legend:
A. Ability to recognize and name common groups of soil invertebrates
B. Ability to describe the ecological role of common groups of soil invertebrates in soil health
C. Comfort level conducting hands-on field scouting and sampling of soil invertebrates
D. Ability to compare the diversity of soil animals across fields with differing management practices
E. Ability to draw general conclusions about soil health based upon the invertebrate groups present in a soil sample (use of soil invertebrates as bioindicators)
F. Understanding of practical, science-based conservation strategies to help increase the abundance and diversity of soil invertebrate life
G. 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 4-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, 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; 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, listed below. A total of 433 people attended the courses, including 180 service providers and 31 farmers. Other attendees included ecologists, biologists, foresters, entomologists, master gardeners, and community members. Some attendees did not specify their affiliation.

Live closed captioned 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.

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 

 

We will hold two more short courses in the spring of 2022.

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. (July 2021–September 2022).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
80
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
240
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
31
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
180
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Following all six of the short courses, we contacted participants by email, providing course-related resources and contact information for Xerces technical staff.

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
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
88
Proposed Completion Date:
October 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

From April 2021 to December 2021, we provided support to 88 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.

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
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
1
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
October 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

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. For follow up survey results, please see Performance Target Outcomes for Service Providers and Farmers and Additional Outcomes Narrative sections.

We will send the follow up survey to participants of courses #5-#6 in spring 2022, to allow for the winter season, when we do not expect that enough time in the appropriate season has passed for a change in attitudes or farming practices to have occurred yet. We will send the follow up survey for courses #7-#8 in the summer and fall of 2022, once three to six months have passed since the delivery of those courses.

 

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

88 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters

Participants in the project’s educational activities:

16 Extension
107 NRCS
48 Researchers
4 Agency
53 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
31 Farmers/ranchers
174 Others
31 Farmers participated

Learning Outcomes

52 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills and/or attitudes as a result of their participation.
5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
42 Ag service providers intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned through this project in their educational activities and services for farmers
Key areas in which the service providers (and farmers if indicated above) reported a change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness::

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 = no skill or knowledge and 5 = very skilled or knowledgeable. The results of these self-assessments are summarized in Figure 1 under Milestone #2.

Fifty-two 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, 42 of 52 (80.7%) 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.

Five 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

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 service providers who reported taking actions to educate/advice farmers:
9
Verified: number of farmers the service providers reported educating/advising through their actions:
101
Verified: amount of production these farmers manage:

20,862

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:
  • 55 Curricula, factsheets and other educational tools
  • 18 Consultations
  • 5 On-farm demonstrations
  • 3 Online trainings
  • 1 Published press articles/newsletters
  • 2 Study circles/focus groups
  • 5 Tours
  • 14 Webinars/talks/presentations
  • 6 Workshops/field days
9 Total number of agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
101 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

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 short course participants, the response rate was only 6% (16 responses). Ten of these were service providers, one was a farmer, one was an agronomy student and four were Master Gardeners. Given the unexpectedly low response rate to the follow up surveys, we are considering some strategies to incentivize a greater response rate in the future, such as offering a chance to win a hard copy of the "Farming with Soil Life” Handbook or other Xerces' publications.

Of the ten service providers who completed the 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 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 101 farmers who manage 20,862 acres of land.

In addition, some service providers reported adopting soil life practices directly. The survey asked the question, “Have you have 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 10 respondents, five (50%) replied “Yes”, three (30%) replied “No”, and two (20%) 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:

  • 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 (3 respondents).
  • Created or enhanced additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields) (1 respondent).
  • Changed or reduced pesticide use to lessen negative impacts on non-target soil invertebrates (2 respondents).
  • Inquired and/or enrolled in NRCS conservation programs that support soil invertebrates (2 respondents).

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:

44
Verified: size/scale of farms these farmers manage:

3,732
Performance target outcome for farmers narrative:

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 43 farmers they support made changes to their practices to improve support of soil health and soil invertebrates. These farmers collectively manage 3,730 acres of farmland.

In addition, the one farmer who completed the survey reported that they had implemented practices related to soil life and soil health on their 2-acre urban farm, based on the Farming with Soil Life Course materials. This farmer reported making the following changes after participating in the short course:

  • 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 enhance additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields)

Additional Project Outcomes

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$30,720.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Additional Outcomes Narrative:

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.

Success stories:

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 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.

Information Products

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.