Visualizing Microbial Agroecology

Progress report for WPDP21-030

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2021: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G365-21-W8617
Grant Recipient: Washington State University
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Maren Friesen
Washington State University
Dr. Douglas Finkelnburg
University of Idaho
Dr. Christina Hagerty
Oregon State University
Dr. Clain Jones
Montana State University
Carol McFarland
Washington State University Farmers Network
Dr. Renee Petipas
Washington State University
Marissa Porter
John I Haas Inc
haiying tao
Washington state university
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Project Information


The microbes that drive soil nutrient cycling are a largely invisible part of the landscape that can have large impacts on the sustainability of farming practices. In particular, adopting management practices that enhance the function of the soil microbiome holds great potential for reducing reliance on external inputs and therefore enhancing on-farm prosperity. The recent and ongoing explosion of emergent research knowledge on soil microbiomes and concomitant interest by agricultural producers, presents a substantial challenge and opportunity for agricultural professionals. Understanding microbially-mediated soil processes as well as communicating knowledge about the role of soil microbes in the agroecosystem to producers, is a prime target for professional development. Our project proposes to develop a series of animations, in close consultation with leading scientists, and to deploy these within an innovative outreach format “Liberating Structures,” designed to foster peer-learning, co-innovation, and network building between participants. Liberating Structures have worked well with progressive stakeholders in Eastern WA in co-innovation sessions this spring, and we plan to expand the scope of this to include WA, ID, OR, and MT.

Project Objectives:

The primary objective of this work is to support increased sustainability in the agroecosystem by promoting knowledge of microbial ecology and nutrient cycling processes with the management practices that support them. The sub-objectives of this work are to:

  • Reinforce the regional network of scientists working on soil microbial ecology by forming new professional connections and reinforcing existing ones
  • Make the most current understanding of microbial ecology in the agroecosystem accessible to agricultural professionals both to enhance their knowledge base as well as to give them new communication tools to interact with their contacts
  • Strengthen the network and professional toolkit for agricultural professionals in the inland Pacific Northwest, honoring their existing knowledge and experience by supporting them to co-innovate with their peers on the most effective ways to work with their clients
  • Empower agricultural professionals to catalyze change in the region’s agroecosystem towards improving soil health and sustainability

By empowering ag professionals with increased access to the latest, research-based microbial agroecology content, and an introduction to a new set of participatory outreach tools, this program will support them with knowledge and skills. Based on our survey data, they desire to serve producers’ interest in learning more about beneficial microbes. We will support this need across four states. Connecting professionals to fundamental and emergent content from the field of soil microbiology, will enable knowledge transfer in both directions and the most effective deployment of the content. University Extension can serve as an ideal hub for this work because of access to both researchers and outreach networks.


Principles, assumptions and beliefs:

  • Many producers have a stated desire to steward their lands sustainably and will take incremental steps to do so when it aligns with production goals and profit margins. Agricultural professionals co-innovate with producers toward conservation and production goals.


  • Financial/Human:
  • The program coordinator alongside PIs and cooperators, will develop video animation content, event planning/hosting/facilitation, project monitoring, evaluation, reporting, and development of presentations and publications.
  • Financial/Physical:
    • Computer-based technology, sound equipment, programs, delivery platforms, and storage- for animation development and content delivery


  • Liberating Structures (LS) are powerful, evidence-based, and easy-to-implement facilitation tools
    • enables participants to truly engage with co-innovation processes
    • outline group size, timing, and prompts to meet a variety of objectives, including “rapidly sifting a group’s most powerful ideas”
  • LS will be used to implement participatory learning events
    • To promote peer-learning, increase depth of understanding from video content, explore innovative ways to promote microbes in the cropping system, and inspire strategies for working with producers to synergistically implement new management practices
  • Program coordinator will develop short animations using specialized software
    • Biorender and/or Blender
    • Cooperators will advise and review animations to ensure accuracy and accessibility.
    • Animations will be dynamically developed with audience feedback over the implementation period (Sept. ’21 – Aug. ’23).
  • Cooperating with networks from well-established Extension programs will enable this program to reach a wide-ranging audience including researchers, Extension specialists, NRCS, conservation districts, and Certified Crop Advisors.
    • Electronic communication will be the primary mode for contact
    • Events will occur online, and in-person as public health policy and travel dictate appropriate within the program timeline
    • WSU Farmers Network website as a communication and content hub

Activities and Timeline:

  • Beginning September 2021, we will organize a regional symposium to showcase the latest research on soil microbial ecology
    • Engage at least 40 researchers and ag professionals
    • Use ‘Ignite’ format
  • Following the symposium a needs assessment for ag professionals will be conducted to determine content needs, preferred delivery platforms, and event timing
    • Program content and delivery will be refined based on participant feedback
  • Animations will be developed continuously throughout the implementation period
    • Continuous participatory events will be held targeted toward ag professionals and focused on a particular animation theme, region, or cropping system
  • By August 2023, we aim to reach over 100 ag professionals online or in person, across Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Pamela Pavek


Educational approach:

We are developing a 'flipped classroom' outreach methodology. At this time the first module of asynchronous content is being developed. We have begun conducting ongoing needs assessment and resource inventory to continue development of a content library. We will launch participatory/discussion and case-study based coursework for ag professionals throughout our partner networks in four states, once enough content is in place to substantiate a module.

To maintain the presence of the Farmers' Network as a reputable resource for information on soil health in the region we are also maintaining standard, in-person 'symposium-style' events that are self- and collaborator-funded. We are also hosting monthly soil health focused, discussion-style events on Zoom. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Microbially Mitigated Nitrogen Cycling Courses

Use video animation to detail the role of microbes in nitrogen cycling for a group of crop consultants, conservationists, and extension personnel. We will use asynchronous content delivery, and use synchronous course time to discuss relevance and application of the content specific to varying cropping systems within the northwest region.


We are developing 3D animations of microbial nutrient cycling within the software Blender. Once we have content development in place to launch a module, we will deploy and extensive professional network to recruit participants in the course. The course will be a participatory approach to learning more about the role of microbes in nutrient cycling and how land management choices affect the microbial ecology across different cropping systems.

Our team was delayed initiating this project due to circumstances beyond our control. The new projected timeline is as follows:

Needs assessment and interest resource inventory launched Dec 2 with Oregon State Soil Health meeting and will be ongoing and promoted at various regional soil-health-focused events throughout the project life cycle.


Video development initiated in December 2021 utilizing 3D animation in the Blender software. Initial content will focus on visualizing the microbial roles within the N cycle, with nitrification serving as the subject of the pilot video.The following three videos will focus on denitrification, symbiotic nitrogen fixation, and nitrogen mineralization. Drafts of the first three videos will be completed by June 2023.

As videos on these key nitrogen-focused processes become finalized, the co-investigator team will begin to establish interested cohorts to participate in the ‘flipped classroom’ participatory education events focused on these videos, and utilizing the Liberating Structures toolkit. Cohorts will focus on content themes and discrete regions/cropping systems. These courses will offer CCA credits and will be ongoing through the life of the project.

We will work with co-investigators to determine optimal timing for a virtual regional symposium focusing on researchers sharing their most current soil health activities focused on soil biology. 

Work with co-investigators, feedback from courses, and the symposium event will feed next steps in animated content generation as we match the resource inventory with the content need described by our partners and ‘clients’. Animated video creation will also be ongoing throughout the life of the project.

With the revised timeline, our team will apply for a project extension in June of 2023 to extend our work into 2024

The development of the animated videos was delayed through this year. Progress was made on the pilot video but was paused as Dr. Tao as lead PI for the WSU Farmers' Network (WSUFN) stepped away from Washington State University, we have been navigating re-visioning the WSUFN to enable Carol McFarland as key personnel to take on the leadership of the WSU Farmers' Network. The WSUFN has served as a regional cornerstone for soil health outreach for over five years, and maintaining its presence is key to the success of the launch of the video and training aspect of this project. 

Images developed through this effort will be used in a presentation on Nitrogen cycling delivered to an audience of approximately 1000 registered participants including ag professionals on February 14th 2023.

Outcomes and impacts:

We will deploy a pilot of this course and a regional microbial symposium by Fall 2023.

WSU Farmers' Network Soil Health Outreach

Strengthen the community network connections between the WSU Farmers' Network and the agricultural professionals and researcher around the dryland grain producing region of the Northwest who are interested in soil health, provide research-based information to support soil-health focused decision making, and space for co-innovation.


The Farmers' Network has re-formed and met with an advisory board of researchers, agricultural professionals, and producers invested in guiding the soil health outreach, stakeholder engagement in the co-production of research and on-farm experimentation related goals of the WSU Farmers' Network. 

We have hosted eleven 'Soil Health Coffee Hour' sessions on Zoom where interested members of the region's ag community comes together around short soil health related topics presented as a provocation for approximately 10 minutes (topics have included The Peola Microbiome, The impact of canola on subsquent wheat mycorhizzal associations, and integrated livestock production) then the attendees ask and answer questions, and discuss related topics in a breakout room component of these sessions. This activity meets several of the project objectives and loosely follows a liberating structures style format. 

Outcomes and impacts:

We have had attendees from across the iPNW's agricultural community join these sessions. The attendees have been researchers, conservationists, crop advisers, industry folks, producers, and other interested participants. The conversations have spurred new collaborations, research questions and proposals, and the opportunity for professionals outside the research community to access specialists to discuss what is present in the data surrounding soil health, soil microbiology, and related topics.

Plant Nutrition Symposium

Deliver science-based information to the agricultural community of the inland Pacific Northwest focused on plant nutrition, with an emphasis on soil health.


Science-based information was presented to the audience around the impact of soil acidification on soil health and plant nutrition, as well as nitrogen management for optimum use efficiency. A panel was utilized to increase audience engagement, and the Liberating Structures tools were utilized for two co-innovation opportunities within the agenda to synthesize content. The evaluations from the audience were positive about the inclusion of these activities.

Outcomes and impacts:

Fifty participants, that included a heavy representation of crop advisers and conservationists were present and engaged throughout. 

Evaluations indicate that following the workshop participants would like to: explore the use of the WSU Nitrogen Use Efficiency calculator, reevaluate N rates and timing; read about climate friendly N fertilizer; and look more into measuring pH, liming and aluminum toxicity


Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
11 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

5 Extension
15 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
5 Agency
30 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
25 Farmers/ranchers
3 Others

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

45 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

At least three grant proposals have been written. New grower and research collaborations have been made. Soil test methods to improve nutrient recommendations have been discussed and pursued. Cropping system diversification has been discussed repeatedly. Efforts to unpack 'soil biology' in a data-driven way have continued to be made. A greater understanding of the needs of the agricultural community and the desire for more information on soil biology has been confirmed.

3 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
25 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

We believe the efforts of our team to reinvigorate the presence of the WSU Farmers' Network to ensure the success of the Visualizing Microbial Agroecology project will be worthwhile. The Farmers' Network is a foundational component of the distribution mechanism for this project and these efforts will meaningfully increase the impact of the videos and associated symposium and trainings. The activities that have been organized as part of the Farmers' Network re-establishment align with the project goals and have been reported accordingly.

We are pursuing website updates so there will be an access point for the videos and trainings, as well as social media infrastructure. The current mailing list for the WSU Farmers' Network is above 400 active email addresses (and growing) of people in the region's agricultural community who are interested in soil health. We continue to receive positive feedback on the work we are doing and as the videos come out through 2023 we expect that the network and positive feedback will continue to increase.


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.