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

Outcomes and impacts:

Through a self-evaluation that was completed immediately following the course, participants were asked to rate their ability to recognize and name common groups of soil invertebrates. On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 = no skill or knowledge and 5 = very skilled or knowledgeable, course attendees rating their ability before the course at 2.3 and after the course at 3.7.

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

Outcomes and impacts:

Through a self-evaluation that was completed immediately following the course, participants were asked to rate their comfort level conducting hands-on field scouting and sampling of soil invertebrates. On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 = no skill or knowledge and 5 = very skilled or knowledgeable, course attendees rating their ability before the course at 1.8 and after the course at 3.0.

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 is 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. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Through a self-evaluation that was completed immediately following the course, participants were asked to rate their ability to draw general conclusions about soil health based upon the invertebrate groups present in a soil sample (use of soil invertebrates as bioindicators). On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 = no skill or knowledge and 5 = very skilled or knowledgeable, course attendees rating their ability before the course at 2.0 and after the course at 3.2.

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Online trainings

Participation Summary:

2 Extension
45 NRCS
27 Researchers
19 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
29 Farmers/ranchers
82 Others

Learning Outcomes

30 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
12 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

We developed a Soil Life curriculum for our online short courses, which has 7 modules that cover the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, the use of soil animals as bioindicators, and conservation strategies and management practices to support soil life and soil health. We have held two courses to date, reaching a total of 205 people. Our primary audiences were staff from the NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts or Resource Conservation Districts, Extension, and sustainable agricultural organizations as well as a number of individual farmers, researchers, farm/orchard/garden managers, natural areas managers, and master gardeners.

In July 2021, we held our first Farming with Soil Life online short course with specific guidance for practitioners in western states. Three Xerces staff members presented the webinar, with a particular focus on NRCS practices that can be used to support soil life on California farms and rangelands. The half-day training introduced participants to the diversity of soil organisms including basic identification and monitoring of soil invertebrate groups, the concept of soil invertebrates as bioindicators (i.e., what the presence or absence of soil animals can reveal about possible contaminants), farm conservation practices, case studies of soil health practices, and how to access technical support for soil health topics.

Our second short course was held in October 2021 and focused on ecological small-scale vegetable farming and soil health, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Two Xerces staff members presented the core curriculum modules on basics of soil science; the diversity of life in the soil; the biology, roles and identification of soil invertebrates; methods for observing soil invertebrates; the effect of management practices on soil invertebrates; NRCS programs that support soil health and soil invertebrates; and additional resources. Guest presenter Jen Aron, Farmer/Owner of Blue Raven Farm, presented her process and methods of learning and adopting soil health practices for her vegetable farm.

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 for participants to access.

At the end of each short course, we asked participants to complete an evaluation to help us better understand what knowledge they brought to the course and what they took away. Evaluations also asked participants what actions they intended to take after the course. Of the 205 short course attendees, 14% (30 of 205) completed the day-of-course evaluations.

100% (30 of 30) of the participants who completed the day-of-course evaluation reported an increase in their knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness after the course, compared to before. Of the 17 agricultural support staff who responded to the day-of-course evaluation, 70% (12 of 17) said that they plan to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices in order to support soil invertebrates and soil health. See Additional Outcomes Narrative below for more details.

Additional Outcomes:

Among the agriculture service providers who responded to the course evaluation:

  • 59% (10 of 17) said they plan to provide guidance to create or enhance additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields)
  • 53% (9 of 17) said they plan to encourage enrollment in NRCS/ Farm Bill conservation programs that support soil invertebrates
  • 47% (8 of 17) said they plan to offer technical support about how to adjust management (tillage, synthetic fertilizer use, mowing, crop diversity, cover crops, continuous living root, incorporate livestock) where possible to support soil invertebrates and soil health
  • 47% (8 of 17) plan to advise their clients to consider pesticide impacts on soil invertebrates when making pest management decisions
  • 6% (1 of 17) plan to incorporate some degree of soil health information to online courses they work on to the extent possible

While the short course specifically targeted agricultural support staff, a number of farmers and other land managers attended each event. A total of five farmers and land managers completed the day-of-course evaluation. Two replied that managing their land for soil health is new to them and they are going to add practices that support it. Four replied that they have implemented some practices already and plan to expand or add more, following their participation in the short course. The farmers and land managers reported that the most important or useful things they learned in the short course were how to make and use a pit fall trap, methods to measure presence of soil organisms as one indicator of soil health, and building their knowledge/general understanding of soil invertebrate life. Collectively, this group reported that they manage approximately 134.4 acres of land.

In December 2021, we distributed follow-up surveys to participants of the July 2021 short course to find out how they are using the information from the short course. We surveyed 67 people, and we received 3 responses for a 4.5% response rate. 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.

The survey respondents identified themselves as a Master Gardener, a farmer, and an interested citizen. One respondent reported that they applied the Farming with Soil Life course content to their land management practices on their farm to adjust management (tillage, synthetic fertilizer use, mowing, crop diversity, cover crops, continuous living root, incorporate livestock) where possible to support soil invertebrates and soil health. They also have created or enhanced additional habitat resources (intentional areas of bare soil for ground nesting bees, beetle bank plantings, other perennial habitat near fields) on their 2-acre farm.

In 2022, we will recruit participants, organize, and deliver four more online short courses. We are also developing a pocket guide on the use of soil invertebrates as bioindicators as another piece that will be added to the Farming with Soil Life curriculum and resources.

Success stories:

Below are comments we have received from course participants:

 “Your information is up to date, practical, and well supported by references and guides.” – Master Gardener, in an urban setting with a population greater than 100,000. 14 July 2021 course.

“I liked the course and your task. Please go on to save the planet!!!” – Farmer, rural setting. 14 July 2021 course.

 

Participants

No participants
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.