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 2020: $64,985.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G185-21-W7903
Grant Recipient: The Xerces Society
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Eric Mader
The Xerces Society
Stephanie Frischie
The Xerces Society
Eric Lee-Mäder
The Xerces Society
Corin Pease
The Xerces Society

Information Products

Soil Life Webpage (Article/Newsletter/Blog)


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:

    Soil science has traditionally emphasized chemical and physical properties. Yet, 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 farmers to reduce tillage, plant cover crops, and adopt other practices to protect this essential resource. However, the focus remains largely on microbiology, with limited information and training for agricultural professionals about the hundreds of thousands of animal species found in soil. This lack of information limits agricultural professionals’ ability to rapidly assess which animals are present on a farm, which are missing, and what those findings may indicate.

    Soil is created and maintained by animals as diverse as annelids, springtails, pocket gophers, and firefly larvae, along with fungi, bacteria and plants. Animals perform keystone roles such as physical churning and the creation of pore space, decomposition, cycling of complex organic matter, carbon mineralization (including activities that sequester carbon dioxide), rapid removal of livestock waste, predation of weed seed and crop pests, and more.

    Building on previous successful SARE projects, Xerces’ acclaimed professional development series now culminates with the last frontier of farm biodiversity: soil life. Through a comprehensive short course, agricultural professionals will learn the fundamentals of soil animal life, including ecology, basic identification, field scouting, the use of soil animals as bioindicators, and conservation strategies to enhance their numbers. This training will include a classroom component and fieldwork (including field scouting exercises) and will be supported by novel tools developed specifically for this course. Empowered by this new knowledge, participants will be equipped to share their expertise with the farmers they support, and to motivate and build confidence among those farmers to better manage their soils.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The intent of this project is to familiarize participants with common soil invertebrates, their ecology and role in soil health, scouting methods to evaluate their relative abundance, and conservation strategies to increase beneficial soil animal populations. After more than a decade of experience with similar trainings, we know that barriers to adopting new information exist. Therefore, our curriculum is based on low-cost, low-time investment strategies that empower independent action. For example, rather than attempting to teach people how to identify thousands of species of ground-beetles, our goal is simply to empower participants to visually recognize ground beetles as a functional group, and to understand their respective roles as decomposers, weed seed consumers, and predators of soft-bodied prey such as slugs. Our goal is to help audiences recognize when these functional groups are or are not present, and to assess the implications of that observation.

    As part of this, we want to empower ag professionals with a basic understanding of the role of soil animals as simplified bioindicators -- fostering a basic understanding of which species are most tolerant of degraded soil conditions versus which species are most sensitive, and what the presence or absence of various species may imply in terms of soil health and possible contaminants. With this newfound knowledge, and some hands-on scouting practice during the field component of the short course, we will empower ag professionals with an open-source curriculum that they can share in their own communities.

    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.