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
Marissa Porter
John I Haas Inc
Dr. haiying tao
University of Connecticut
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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 Mediated 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 still in the process of 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. Content will focus on visualizing the microbial roles within the N cycle, with nitrification serving as the subject of the initial 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 2024.

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. We will offer a course with CCA credits at the end of the project.

We have revised the initially proposed symposium format into a monthly online format over 8 months focusing on a different (soil microbiology) topic each month, and including co-learning and networking into the participatory format. 

With the revised timeline, our team has applied 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 prior to the start of this project. The departure of Dr. Tao resulted in re-visioning the WSUFN to enable Carol McFarland as key personnel to take on the leadership of the WSU Farmers' Network and transform it to the PNWFN. The WSUFN has served as a regional cornerstone for soil health outreach for over five years, and maintaining its presence has been viewed as central to the success of any deliverables through this project. The shift in capacity for the key personnel into re-developing, retaining interest in the PNWFN as a soil health partner and content producer, and positioning efforts, combined with the highly technical nature of developing 3D animation skills have been at resource odds and slowed progress towards the animated video outputs. 

Images developed through this effort were used in a presentation on Nitrogen cycling delivered by PI Dr. Maren Friesen at the Washington SoilCon, to an audience of approximately 1000 registered participants with an emphasis on ag professionals on February 14th 2023.

Outcomes and impacts:

The PNW Farmers' Network continues to grow and in June 2023 had the capacity to re-launch a Website and YouTube channel, which now has an archive of recorded short lectures on compost tea, soil health in dryland wheat with an emphasis on microbes, magnitude matters to microbes when managing for soil health, and research updates on the canola and peaola microbiomes and an expanding archive. YouTube views for microbial topics to-date are 157 views. The YouTube channel is essential infrastructure to support distribution of video content to participants in the microbial mediated videos. The development of the website and associated digital presence was an essential step towards the proposed goal of being an information hub for science-based soil health content.

WSU/PNW 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 22 '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 10-15 minutes (topics have included The Peola Microbiome, The impact of canola on subsequent wheat mycorrhizal 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. Each month, between 20 and 40 attendees join from various sectors of the ag community including: researchers, conservationists, crop advisers, industry folks, producers, and other interested participants from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.  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


Acidic Soils Solutions in the iPNW - a three part workshop series

To provide a forum to share recent research from the region relevant to amelioration of severely acidic soils, progress the mental model around reluctance in the region to address acidic soil conditions and better understand the implications of business as usual practices on contributions to soil acidity via nitrification as well as barriers to amelioration practices and resources for taking next steps to ameliorate soil acidity


Soil pH in the inland Pacific Northwest (iPNW) agricultural production systems continues to trend downwards. Many barriers currently exist to using lime as a consistent practice to elevate soil pH above severely acidic levels. Acidic soil pH shifts community composition of the soil microbiome, reduces crop productivity/diversity potential, and nutrient use efficiency. Growers and crop advisers around the region have been interested in strategies to promote soil health, including by supporting a healthy microbiome. Our partnership with University of Idaho and Washington State University Extension created this 10 hour course over three sessions to provide research updates, and also leveraged Liberating Structures with an in-person group with the ag community to identify the challenges, barriers, and solutions to overcoming this barrier to soil and microbial ecology health.

Outcomes and impacts:

Over 110 contacts with the content were made throughout this event representing industry, conservation, research, and producers in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. Our team recorded 4 hours of research updates on principles of and remediating soil acidification for archival on the PNWFN YouTube Channel. The work has had implications including: helping to catalyze more accurate lime recommendations in the region and providing a basis for a pilot cost-share project through Idaho NRCS, giving participants a tool/framework for thinking about how each input of nitrogen fertilizer contributes to acidification, participants reporting that they will be looking at base saturation on their soil test reports and using in-field pH meters to look for acidification in the field. Many of the in-person evaluation comments also suggested they appreciated the connections made during the Liberating Structures co-production of knowledge portion of the event.  

Educational & Outreach Activities

50 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
26 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
10 Other educational activities: On-Farm Trials Podcast

Participation Summary:

7 Extension
32 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
25 Agency
50 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
120 Farmers/ranchers
22 Others

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
45 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

At least three grant proposals have been written. New grower, research, conservation, and industry 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 and built upon. The PNW Farmers' Network has also developed a podcast and training to expand mental models around 'On-Farm Trial' design and implementation as the region's ag community continues to innovate around soil biological stimulants and supplements, fertility management, crop diversification, and input reduction strategies. 

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

We believe the efforts of our team to reinvigorate the presence of the PNW Farmers' Network(PNWFN) within the context of the Visualizing Microbial Agroecology project continues to be worthwhile. The PNW Farmers' Network is a foundational component of the distribution mechanism for this project and the efforts in that direction are seen in the interest of 182 registrations for the Soil Health Coffee hours by ag professionals in 2023. The activities that have been organized as part of the Farmers' Network re-establishment align with the project goals and have been reported accordingly.

In 2023 the PNWFN successfully relaunched in the digital space with a website, YouTube channel, X account, and a podcast, the website's focus is on hosting content and to collate related partner resources. The current mailing list for the WSU Farmers' Network is above 500 active email addresses (and growing) of people in the agricultural community of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana, who are interested in cropping systems diversification and innovation, and soil biology as part of the soil functioning as a vital living ecosystem. We continue to receive positive feedback on the work we are doing, and as the videos come out we expect that engagement with the network resources and positive feedback will continue to increase. As the end of 2023 the infrastructure, framework, and engagement with the PNWFN is commensurate with the engagement with the WSUFN prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the departure of Dr. Tao. 



The adjacent On-Farm Trials podcast with the PNW Farmers' Network work has been a highly successful effort. With over 1000 listens to the bi-weekly episodes since it debuted at the end of June 2023, and almost 300 listens in the month of January 2024 it has been experiencing growing interest and support among the varied sectors of the ag community. Listeners are predominantly, but not limited to, from the Northwest. The effort aims to elevate individual innovators around the region and has featured producers with reputations as innovators, including those at the end of their careers. The podcast has featured both male and female producers, across a varied age range, and representing varied agroecological classifications within the inland Northwest dryland production region. The podcast also showcases producer and researcher collaborations around on-farm trials, supports collaboration efforts, and increased visibility for these partners. Topics covered focus on cropping systems innovation and conservation agriculture, and in the conversation-style audio, growers share their thoughts and knowledge around innovation, the barriers to and need for innovation to adapt to changing conditions in the environment, economy and society, along with many other challenges and opportunities including farm succession, urban encroachment, herbicide resistance, conservation programs, balancing economic solvency with stewardship goals, and so much more comes through in these episodes. It is a valuable way to showcase producer voices and honor their knowledge alongside research data as we explore 'pluralistic ways of knowing' and how that philosophy can co-exist with reductionist western scientific approaches and tools.

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.