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

Progress report for PDP20-003

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $64,985.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G185-21-W7903
Grant Recipient: The Xerces Society
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Eric Mader
The Xerces Society
Co-Investigators:
Stephanie Frischie
The Xerces Society
Eric Lee-Mäder
The Xerces Society
Corin Pease
The Xerces Society
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Project Information

Abstract:

Soil science has traditionally emphasized chemical and physical properties. Yet, there is now an enthusiastic and long overdue interest in soil biology. Indeed, the emerging soil health movement has changed the discourse to include mycorrhizal fungi, glomalin, root exudates, and myriad other biological components. This new relationship with soil life is inspiring farmers to reduce tillage, plant cover crops, and adopt other practices to protect this essential resource. However, the focus remains largely on microbiology, with limited information and training for agricultural professionals about the hundreds of thousands of animal species found in soil. This lack of information limits agricultural professionals’ ability to rapidly assess which animals are present on a farm, which are missing, and what those findings may indicate.

Soil is created and maintained by animals as diverse as annelids, springtails, pocket gophers, and firefly larvae, along with fungi, bacteria and plants. Animals perform keystone roles such as physical churning and the creation of pore space, decomposition, cycling of complex organic matter, carbon mineralization (including activities that sequester carbon dioxide), rapid removal of livestock waste, predation of weed seed and crop pests, and more.

Building on previous successful SARE projects, Xerces’ acclaimed professional development series now culminates with the last frontier of farm biodiversity: soil life. Through a comprehensive short course, agricultural professionals will learn the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, the use of soil animals as bioindicators, and conservation strategies to enhance their numbers. This training will include a classroom component and fieldwork (including field scouting exercises) and will be supported by novel tools developed specifically for this course. Empowered by this new knowledge, participants will be equipped to share their expertise with the farmers they support, and to motivate and build confidence among those farmers to better manage their soils.

Project Objectives:

The intent of this project is to familiarize participants with common soil invertebrates, their ecology and role in soil health, scouting methods to evaluate their relative abundance, and conservation strategies to increase beneficial soil animal populations. After more than a decade of experience with similar trainings, we know that barriers to adopting new information exist. Therefore, our curriculum is based on low-cost, low-time investment strategies that empower independent action. For example, rather than attempting to teach people how to identify thousands of species of ground-beetles, our goal is simply to empower participants to visually recognize ground beetles as a functional group, and to understand their respective roles as decomposers, weed seed consumers, and predators of soft-bodied prey such as slugs. Our goal is to help audiences recognize when these functional groups are or are not present, and to assess the implications of that observation.

As part of this, we want to empower ag professionals with a basic understanding of the role of soil animals as simplified bioindicators -- fostering a basic understanding of which species are most tolerant of degraded soil conditions versus which species are most sensitive, and what the presence or absence of various species may imply in terms of soil health and possible contaminants. With this newfound knowledge, and some hands-on scouting practice during the field component of the short course, we will empower ag professionals with an open-source curriculum that they can share in their own communities.

Timeline:

In Year 1, we will adapt a classroom and field curriculum already developed for other SARE regions to the Western SARE region, and we will develop the biomonitoring guide.

In Years 2 and 3, we will conduct a total of six courses and one webinar on the topics of soil animal ecology, soil animals as bioindicators, and strategies for improving soil health. Our curriculum will be complemented by guest speakers, including regional NRCS Soil Health Coordinators and other experts, farmers with first-hand experience in soil health practices, and researchers who can share case studies on soil health. The NRCS Soil Health Division will review course content so that it aligns with their soil health efforts and the NRCS resource concern “soil organism habitat degradation.”

Participants will receive a packet of resources, including a biomonitoring guide, soil scouting protocols, course slides, and online resources to use in their own training programs.

We will work with local partners and guest speakers to publicize the courses and register attendees. To recruit participants, we will send event announcements to our extensive network, including hundreds of people who have attended previous Xerces events. Additionally, we will recruit audiences through partnerships with sustainable ag organizations, Extension, conservation districts, the NRCS, farming and food companies, and state agencies. Courses will also be announced through social media, listservs, and regional newsletters.

Of the six courses we will offer, we will target delivery in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Where possible, venues will be located to draw participants from adjacent states (for example, we will try to secure a venue in southern Idaho to draw participants from northern Utah). Recognizing that some participants may be unable to travel, we will also offer a webinar that will cover the same subject matter in a consolidated format and that will connect viewers to the same set of free publications and supporting resources.  

Through these events, at least 240 agricultural professionals will receive training. Three to six months after the courses, we will send a follow-up survey to participants to see if and how they are applying course content.

In Year 2 and Year 3, we anticipate providing follow-up technical assistance to at least 40 course participants who request support from us. These support requests may range from advice about a specific farm or soil issue, to tips for delivery of the open-source curriculum for their clients.

Education

Educational approach:

Through a comprehensive Farming with Soil Life online course, agricultural professionals and farmers will learn the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, the use of soil animals as bioindicators, and conservation strategies that enhance soil life and related soil health. This online training will include customized regional content for each audience with guided instruction, video from fieldwork and scouting exercises, and Q&A with Xerces staff and local experts. The online course will be supported by a companion handbook, Farming with Soil Life, that includes profiles of over 70 soil invertebrate groups. Empowered by this new knowledge, participants will be equipped to share their expertise with the farmers they support, and to motivate and build confidence among those farmers to manage for soil life.

Our Farming with Soil Life online course has three components:
1. An online classroom curriculum covering 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. An online course demonstration of field techniques that will build 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. A streamlined soil invertebrate biomonitoring guide that will highlight which species are most tolerant of degraded soil conditions versus which species are most sensitive. Included in this guide will be a series of brief explanations of what the presence or absence of various species may imply in terms of soil health and possible contaminants, as well as suggested management strategies to increase species abundance and diversity of beneficial soil animals.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

The diversity of soil animals (with a focus on invertebrates), their role in soil health, and how to identify them
Objective:

Gain an expanded understanding of soil animal diversity and ecology, including the ability to recognize the 12 most common groups of soil invertebrates and to describe their role in soil health.

Description:

This topic will be covered in the online short course through slides, images, instruction and short quizzes. Xerces’ handbook Farming with Soil Life and bioindicator guide support this curriculum. 

Methods for field scouting and sampling of soil invertebrates and how to evaluate the results for agricultural settings.
Objective:

Learn how to perform various methods in order to carry out that same scouting and sampling independently after the course

Description:

This topic will be covered in the online short course through slides, images, videos and guided instruction. Xerces’ handbook Farming with Soil Life and bioindicator guide support this curriculum. 

Soil invertebrates as bioindicators of soil health
Objective:

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.

Description:

This topic  will be covered in the online short course through slides, images, instruction and short quizzes. Xerces’ handbook Farming with Soil Life and bioindicator guide support this curriculum. 

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

We are in the process of designing and building the short course curriculum of slides, demonstrations and reference materials. We have identified several potential guest speakers for specific regions and topics, which will enhance the core curriculum. We will be scheduling and advertising the short courses starting in May 2021.  

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.