Assessment of Soil Biology and Plant Available Nitrogen for Soil Health and Water Quality

2016 Annual Report for EW16-026

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2016: $49,690.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2018
Grant Recipient: CAFES Center for Sustainability
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Hunter Francis
CAFES Center for Sustainability

Assessment of Soil Biology and Plant Available Nitrogen for Soil Health and Water Quality


Burgeoning interest in the topic of soil health since the submission of this SARE grant request has been remarkable. Largely driven by the potential to use soils as a sink for misplaced atmospheric carbon (through photosynthesis), the growing attention on sustainable soil management practices is proving to be a boon to long-time promoters of them and bodes well for the delivery of the educational products we are in the process of developing through this grant. The NRCS has established a Soil Health Division, and has now staffed regional centers for it. Nationally, the Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG) was established under the National Science and Technology Council to develop a Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science, which aims to establish federal soil research priorities, ensure availability of tools and information for improved stewardship, and inform related policy development and coordination. In California, the Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has allocated $7.5 million to fund projects through a new Healthy Soil Initiative and is currently in the process of developing guidelines for that funding. On January 11, our center director attended a Healthy Soils Summit at CDFA in Sacramento, which drew record attendance from many of California’s sustainable agriculture leaders and others. This is an exciting time in the history of soil science.

Interest in soil health is also reflective of a paradigm shift within that history. Throughout the twentieth century, the concept of soil quality relied heavily on physical and chemical parameters of soils in assessment of them. The concept of soil health is elevating the idea that soils are a living ecosystem and putting greater focus on the biological aspects of soils. Soil biota and organic matter are being increasingly recognized as a fundamental component of soil quality. A major thrust of this grant is to highlight their role and to illustrate techniques useful for assessing soil biology and its relation to soil health. This is somewhat of a moving target, as many such assessment methods are new or in the process of being validated or perfected. Nonetheless, we hope that activities funded through the grant will increase general understanding of these important aspects of soil health and how that understanding can be used better to manage soil organic matter, nitrogen, crops and water quality – often to the economic benefit of producers and to environmental benefit for us all.

We have now begun to engage a wide cross-section of stakeholders to develop live and web-based training and resources, including hands-on field workshops for professionals on soil health, with a specific focus on new, practical and affordable methods to assess soil biological activity overall and mineralized plant available nitrogen in particular.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Overall objectives of this grant are briefly listed here:

1) Provide training to agricultural and other professionals on the assessment of soil biology and plant available nitrogen;

2) Equip professionals with data-driven solutions for pressing soil and water challenges;

3) Expand the “toolbox” of professionals by providing them with information and hands-on training;

4) Provide a comprehensive overview of how soil biology and organic matter, as well as to other physio-chemical parameters, relate to soil health;

5) Put a special focus on how carbon and nitrogen cycle in soils, and how soil organic matter content relates to the mineralization of plant available nitrogen;

6) Promote understanding of the role and value of organic nitrogen and its relation to inorganic nitrogen;

7) Provide basic training on how to create/manage nutrient budgets and promote methods for increasing soil organic matter and building beneficial soil biology;

8) Discuss the relevance of educational materials developed to other pertinent fields, such as biological amendments, water quality and carbon sequestration; and,

9) Leverage Cal Poly State University’s vast network of alumni and industry supporters to disseminate grant deliverables.

Specifically, we have been tasked to develop five primary deliverables:

1) A “Soil Health” presentation/event at Cal Poly featuring a leading expert on soil biology and its assessment to raise campus, community, industry and overall stakeholder awareness of the project and its significance;

2) A “screen-cast” video training series to be offered via our center’s website that will be free to the public. The series will essentially be a Powerpoint presentation with an audio overlay, tantamount to a webinar, although not interactive. We are aiming for a very high professional quality in which parts will fit seamlessly together in the same format. Originally, the six segments envisioned were: a) a systemic overview of soil biology and the role of soil organic matter with correlation to traditional physio-chemical parameters and to new techniques such as metagenomics, b) nutrient cycling and its correlation to soil fertility, nitrogen mineralization and sequestration of carbon in soils, c) new methods for assessing soil biological activity, especially in-field carbon dioxide respiration methods, d) in-situ chemical residue assessment methods, especially biological and enzymatic nitrate quick tests, e) applications to compost (such as the testing of maturity and stability in compost and the effects of compost amendment to soil biological activity), f) the relationship to water quality, nutrient testing in water, and development of nutrient budgets for agricultural production. We have now divided these six into fifteen smaller segments [see details in next section];

3) A certificate of completion for those wishing to receive proof they completed the web-based training. A test for comprehension of each segment will be developed and administered.

4) Three field day workshops in southern, central and northern California that will demonstrate principles and assessment methods featured in the web-based videos. These will be half-day, “tailgate-style” offerings open to the public at no charge.

5) A compilation of resources pertinent to the project that will also be made available on the Center’s website. These will include key initiatives and resources developed by other organizations, such as SARE.

Progress on these five objectives is reported below in ‘Accomplishments.’


Given unanticipated spring/summer 2016 obligations, our start on this project was delayed. After acceptance of our grant, we were in communication with Western SARE staff to inquire about the possibility of a deadline extension through spring 2017, and we were told that would be possible. We plan to formally request that extension shortly. Nonetheless, we made significant progress this fall on the five primary deliverables mentioned above.

1) The “Soil Health” presentation/event at Cal Poly

Dr. Elaine Ingham has agreed to be our featured speaker at this community event, although given her wealth of expertise on the topic of soil health, we have decided to host her for a day-long workshop on the soil food web and its relationship to soil health and food safety. Professional agriculturists and gardeners alike will benefit from this workshop, which will take place in San Luis Obispo on April 14. Elaine Ingham is a microbiologist and soil biology researcher and founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc. She is an author of the USDA’s Soil Biology Primer. Given Dr. Ingham’s popularity, we expect a large audience for the event. We plan to offer CCA (certified crop advisor) continuing education units for professionals and we plan to outreach the event widely in the agricultural community. The Organic Fertilizer Association of California has agreed to help promote the event.

Furthermore, as a part of this soil health project, we plan to host two additional speakers: Drs. Louise Jackson and Alan Franzluebbers at two separate events.

Dr. Jackson will deliver a talk at Cal Poly on February 9 entitled “Water, Climate and California Agriculture: A Role for Agroecology.” She will address soil health and carbon sequestration in the presentation, which will be open to the public. Dr. Jackson is a professor and cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at the University of California, Davis. Her lab has studied soil and root ecology across agricultural landscapes, and has been involved in social-ecological projects on agricultural adaptation to climate change. She has served on the CDFA Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel, and Climate-Smart Agriculture Global Science Conference Committees.

We are also very excited that Dr. Alan Franzluebbers, USDA Professor of Soil Science at North Carolina State University, has accepted our invitation to present on his groundbreaking work during the first week of May at Cal Poly (exact date still TBD). Dr. Franzluebbers is a USDA-ARS ecologist whose research focuses on soil organic matter management for development of sustainable agricultural systems. Of particular interest to us, he has studied biological soil quality methods and soil organic carbon sequestration tools used to interpret the effects of management on soil resources. He is at the cutting edge of understanding the relationship between soil respiration and nitrogen mineralization.

Presentations by the three above speakers will advance our educational efforts in and of themselves, yet, importantly, visits by the speakers will give us the opportunity to consult with them on the other offerings we are developing for this grant – namely, the video series and the field trainings.

2) The video series to be offered via our Center’s website

Through extensive research and interviews with our collaborators, we have compiled an outline for the series, which will be further developed this winter and converted into PowerPoint format this spring. We have solicited additional feedback on this project through new contacts we have made, particularly through the NRCS’ new Soil Health Division. They have agreed to furnish expertise and graphic materials for the series where needed. We have also been given permission to use pictures, graphs and other materials by Dr. Ray Weil, author of The Nature and Properties of Soils, a leading textbook. We are compiling outline and graphic materials on a Google drive we have set up for the project and for the use of our team, which now includes a half dozen Cal Poly faculty and staff, plus two hired interns, one working on content and the other on technical aspects of the project. Our campus’ new soil microbiologist, Dr. Cristina Lazcano, who is serving as a fellow for our center this year, has been particularly valuable in our work thus far.

Originally, we had planned to divide the series into six parts (as described above). Though not specified, we were expecting each part would be at least an hour long. After significant feedback, we have decided to break the series into smaller segments, now fifteen, which will be kept between 20-30 minutes each. Our goal is to keep the presentation of each topic succinct and to the point, narrowing in quickly on essential and novel topics. To support further interest, each segment will refer viewers to relevant external resources for further education on select topics. We feel the new format will assist viewers in identifying and reviewing topics. All topics originally envisioned will be covered in this new format. As promised, soil biology and cutting edge assessment methods will be given special focus. At the end of this project, the narrative for the series will be transcribed and could be used in written form for other educational purposes. Topics of the series have now been segmented as follows:

VIDEO 1: Introduction & Orientation

VIDEO 2: The Foundations of Soil Health & Soil Organic Matter

VIDEO 3: Soil Biota & Food Web – Overview

VIDEO 4: Chemical Indicators of Soil Health

VIDEO 5: Humus and Organic Matter Fractions

VIDEO 6: Nutrient Cycles, Relation to Soil Fertility & Nutrition

VIDEO 7: Assessing Nutrients

VIDEO 8: Physical Indicators of Soil Health

VIDEO 9: Assessing Biology (Overview)

VIDEO 10: Microbial Biomass, Diversity and Activity Assessment

VIDEO 11: Management for Soil Health

VIDEO 12: Compost and Bio-amendments

VIDEO 13: Ecosystem Services/Co-benefits of Soil Health

VIDEO 14: Carbon Sequestration and Climate Considerations

VIDEO 15: Producer Incentives

3) A certificate of completion and web-based exam

We are currently in discussion with Cal Poly Extended Education to host the on-line training (for those who want credit) and do not expect difficulty with this, though, as anticipated, a fee will be assessed for those who enroll to watch it “officially”. We will develop the test after the series is complete.

4) Three field day workshops

We have selected three sites for our workshops this spring and are in the process of identifying staff for each, who will help us develop training materials for each. Each training will vary slightly, based on the location and type of farm, but they will all feature a PhD scientist and Cal Poly support staff. Additionally, our regional NRCS Soil Health Division Coordinator, Zahangir Kabir, and our State Soil Scientist, Tony Rolfes. have agreed to help us identify local NRCS staff to participate and help with demonstrations. We plan to video record segments of each workshop for inclusion in our video series, in particular to demonstrate how to conduct certain soil tests.

Southern CA: San Luis Obispo. This will be in a vineyard setting and will feature Alan Franzluebbers during his visit the first week of May. It will be co-hosted by the Vineyard Team, a leading sustainability educational non-profit and third party certifier for winegrowers.

Central CA: Turlock in the Central Valley. This workshop will be on a diversified farm including orchard and rangeland (sheep) in late May. It will feature Joe Mullinax, owner of Denele Labs and soil assessment expert.

Northern CA: Guinda in the Capay Valley. A June field day hosted at Full Belly Farm, a 400-acre and premier organic farm, also with the assistance of Denele Labs and NRCS.

5) Compilation of resources pertinent to the project for the Center’s website

We are keeping track of copious resources already identified and tracked in our Google drive. These will be compiled, formatted and uploaded on our website at the end of the project.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

While the project has not been launched publicly, it has provided an excellent way to expand our connections and engagement on the very lively topic of soil health. We are steadily building our capacity in this realm, something which is strengthening our SARE efforts, but also fostering other of our initiatives. For example, we have been funded by a charitable organization to develop educational outreach on ‘carbon literacy,’ which among other things, will include a Carbon Farm Planning workshop with the Carbon Cycle Institute on April 12. Those projects in particular are undergirded by a solid understanding of soil processes, which the SARE grant is helping us to refine. Connections such as these are synergistic and we expect they will help us broaden the impact of our final deliverables. They will also bring greater awareness of existing resources developed by SARE and other universities (such as Colorado’s COMET Farm Planner and the Cornell Assessment of Soil Health) to a wider audience. Internally, this SARE project is helping us engage our own faculty on the topic, especially those partaking in our new Climate Smart Agriculture Committee.

In the end, we are confident this project will be successful in achieving the outcomes anticipated in our application:

1) A greater understanding among agricultural professionals of how soil biology relates to soil health, and importantly, of new, practical methods for assessing soil nutrients and biological activity;

2) Creation of a more complete soil assessment “toolkit” available to the western region and nationally;

3) By extension, producers will do a better job managing soil nutrients (especially nitrogen), thereby protecting the environment and potentially saving money;

4) Awareness of the new methods highlighted will help practitioners better assess the effectiveness of sustainable crop/nutrient practices, making it possible to make future recommendations more precise and to combat over-fertilization in the field;

5) Knowledge offered will help people to customize their farm practices based on site-specific real-time data;

6) Knowledge supplied will help the agricultural community overcome barriers to adoption of sustainable soil management practices resulting from lack of knowledge and/or concerns about relative benefit and cost;

7) The project should increase appreciation for organic amendments and soil building practices;

8) A cleaner environment and greater/rural farm prosperity could result;

9) Regulators and certifiers will have more effective tools to support the development of their respective frameworks;

10) Successful SARE funding for this project will help build capacity for further funding to support the assessment and quantification of soil health.



Dr. Ashraf Tubeileh

[email protected]
Cal Poly State University
Horticulture and Crop Science Dept.
One Grande Ave.
United States
Office Phone: 8057562870
Andrew Sparda

Intuitive Consulting Solutions
1096 Main St.
Readfield, ME 04355
Dr. Claire Balint

Cal Poly State University
Center for Sustainability
SLO, CA 93407