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

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2019: $114,618.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2022
Grant Recipient: The Xerces Society
Region: Northeast
State: Oregon
Project Leader:
Eric Lee-Mader
Eric Lee-Mader
Stephanie Frischie
The Xerces Society

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Animal Production: manure management, rangeland/pasture management
  • Crop Production: cover crops, no-till, nutrient management, water storage
  • Education and Training: extension, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: integrated pest management, prevention, conservation biocontrol & beneficial insect habitat
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Problem and Justification
    Soils have physical, chemical, and biological properties. While these first two properties have long dominated the field of soil science, 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 more farmers to reduce tillage, plant cover crops, and adopt other practices to better protect this essential resource. While agriculture continues toward a more holistic understanding of soil biology, the focus has remained largely on the microbiology of soils, and there is a lack of information and training resources available for farmers and service providers about the hundreds of thousands of animal species found in the world’s soils. This lack of information limits the ability of ag professionals to rapidly assess which animals are present on a farm, which are missing, and what those findings may indicate.

    These animals as diverse as annelids, springtails, pocket gophers and firefly larvae aren’t simply sustained by soil but rather are inseparable from it. Along with fungi and bacteria, soil is created and maintained by animals. Animals perform keystone roles in soil such as physical churning and the creation of pore space, decomposition and cycling of complex organic matter, carbon mineralization (including activities that sequester anthropogenic
    carbon dioxide emissions), rapid removal of livestock waste, predation of weed seed and crop pests, and many other functions.

    The majority of agricultural professionals responding to our national survey rated their knowledge of soil animals as low. Moreover, 98% of respondents said that they would like to attend a training on this topic.

    Solution and Approach
    Building on highly successful SARE projects, Xerces’ acclaimed professional development series now culminates with the last frontier of farm biodiversity: soil life. Through a comprehensive short course, we will train ag service providers in the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, use of soil animals as bio-indicators, and conservation strategies to enhance their numbers. This short course will include a classroom component and fieldwork (including field scouting exercises) and will be supported by a conservation handbook developed specifically for this course (also downloadable for free).

    Performance targets from proposal:

    50 of the 240 providers who learn to recognize, quantify and conserve essential invertebrates in soils through project short courses will provide soil management guidance to 100 farmers (each reaching at least two 100-acre farms), collectively impacting 10,000 acres. 18 of the 80 farmers who attend these courses will report changing some farm management practices based on what they learn through the course.

    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.