The Urban Farming Soil Life Short Course

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2021: $67,160.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: The Xerces Society
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Eric Mader
The Xerces Society


Not commodity specific


  • Animal Production: manure management, parasite control
  • Crop Production: agroforestry, conservation tillage, continuous cropping, cover crops, drought tolerance, greenhouses, high tunnels or hoop houses, intercropping, low tunnels, multiple cropping, no-till, nutrient cycling, nutrient management, organic fertilizers, pollination, pollinator habitat, pollinator health, relay cropping, row covers (for season extension), silvopasture, water management, water storage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, technical assistance, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, drift/runoff buffers, grass waterways, habitat enhancement, hedgerows, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: integrated pest management
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems, organic agriculture, Urban Agriculture
  • Soil Management: earthworms, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil quality/health, toxic status mitigation
  • Sustainable Communities: quality of life, sustainability measures, urban agriculture

    Proposal abstract:

    The Urban Farming Soil Life Short Course teaches urban farmers and agricultural educators who speak English or Spanish about the organisms that contribute to soil health, farm productivity, and food safety.

    Through a series of six comprehensive short courses and a companion pocket guide—offered in both English and Spanish—at least 200 agricultural educators and 120 farmers will learn the fundamentals of soil life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, the use of soil organisms as bioindicators, and conservation strategies to enhance their numbers. Two online and four in-person courses will be developed and delivered. The pocket guide will provide an accessible, easy tool to learn about and identify soil invertebrates, the most abundant and diverse organisms found in soils, and an underrepresented category when discussing soil health.

    Participants will increase their understanding of soil organism diversity, biology, and functions; how management practices affect soil life; how to choose and adjust management practices to favor beneficial soil organism diversity and function; and how to monitor the impact of new management practices. Empowered with this knowledge, participants will be equipped to share their expertise with the farmers they support, and to motivate and build confidence among urban farmers to conserve soil life.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project will result in the following outputs:

    1. Two 4-hour online short courses. Based on our experience organizing and delivering online short courses, we anticipate 100 agricultural educators and farmers will attend each course (200 total). One course will be offered in English and one in Spanish. Both will cover:
      • A brief review of soil function, properties, and classifications
      • Introduction to the main groups of soil invertebrates; how to recognize them; their ecology
      • The roles of soil invertebrates and the connection to soil health
      • Methods for scouting, monitoring, and counting 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).
      • Regionally relevant research
      • Management practices to increase the abundance and diversity of soil animals (e.g., cover crop systems and non-chemical management of soil pathogens)
      • Case examples from urban farms
      • An overview of NRCS programs and resources for urban farms
      • Q & A

    Online courses will be recorded and freely available for viewing on Xerces YouTube channel so participants can access and revisit the course for their own self-directed learning.

    1. Four full-day in-person short courses. Three courses will be offered in English and one in Spanish. The target audience size will be 30 agricultural educators and farmers for each course (120 total), in order to provide a balance of discussion and involvement in the field sampling activities. Courses will cover the same modules as the online course, but with more time and detail for each module and guest presentations. Additionally, the scouting and monitoring module will be held as an outdoor hands-on workshop in the afternoon. Courses will be delivered in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Toledo.

    The courses will be designed for urban farmers and for ag professionals from agencies and organizations including but not limited to NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Extension, urban agriculture centers, sustainable ag groups, and city parks and recreation departments. The in-person courses will also be targeted to Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA affiliates in their respective communities (both organizations consist of urban conservation groups focused on invertebrate awareness and conservation).

    1. Pocket ID Guide to Soil Life, a folded pocket guide with visual and descriptive cues for identifying the 12 main groups of soil invertebrates and an overview of the role of each in agricultural soils and farm ecosystems. The pocket guide is a compact, portable, at-a-glance, low-tech learning tool designed to be used in the field. There will be an English and Spanish version of the pocket ID guide.

    The course curriculum and pocket guide will be developed by native and fluent Spanish speakers, and we will work with a professional Spanish language editor to ensure the quality of the course materials. 



    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.