By National Geographic Education Staff
Friday, January 21, 2011
Jerry grew up on a farm in the high plains of Colorado—“the home of the Dust Bowl,” he says.
Although he was familiar with agriculture and crops such as wheat and sorghum, it wasn’t until Jerry was in his late twenties that he realized “soil science” was an actual field of study.
He was pursuing his undergraduate degree in philosophy when he became an intern at the Land Institute. Learning about perennials and their possible agricultural and ecological uses “was a total game-changer for me,” Jerry says. “It was an epiphany.”
It was a completely different way of thinking about science and ecology, Jerry says. “The way we think about the science of agriculture—crop rotation, fertilizer, pesticides—that’s the software. The plants, they’re the hardware. We’re usually thinking of developing new software for old hardware. We’re trying to put Photoshop on a Commodore 64! By developing and expanding use of perennials, we could design new hardware.”
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Working in native grasslands. I work with specialists who study insects, microbial diversity, chemistry. . . . My wife studies nematode populations. Working from such different perspectives, I am constantly reminded how well the [native grass] ecosystem works—how elegant, how beautiful.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Sitting at a desk, writing a paper.”
Jerry says the work of publishing can be tiring. It often takes a year to have a scientific article published in a magazine like Science. Even top scientists like Jerry must revise their work. “Everyone gets rejected,” he says. Scientists submit their article, revise it, submit it again, and make new revisions. The cycle repeats until the paper is published.
Although he usually prefers to be in the field, studying soil and plants, Jerry realizes that publishing and communicating with other scientists is very important to his field of study. “You gotta do it,” he says.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“The study of the Earth.”
Agriculture has been identified as one of the greatest manmade threats to ecosystems on Earth, and Jerry believes annual plants like rice, wheat, and corn are a big part of the problem. “Annual plants, which die every year, have very shallow root systems. Annuals usually need more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, because their root systems do not retain nutrients very well,” he explains.
Perennial plants like sunflowers, on the other hand, bloom every year without having to be replanted. Jerry explains: “Perennial plants have incredibly deep root systems. They can extend dozens of feet into the soil. This anchors the soil, limiting erosion and runoff. It also allows perennial plants to survive periods of little precipitation. Their roots extend so far, they can access water that plants with shorter root systems simply cannot.
“When you apply fertilizer or pesticides on an annual plant, you always lose it. It seeps into the soil, into the groundwater. It washes away as runoff, which is pollution for rivers. . . . With perennials, what you put in [water, nutrients], stays in.
“Perennials increase water infiltration, which means they retain water in the soil and texture of the plant. They also have decreased transpiration, meaning that perennial plants are less likely to lose water vapor into the atmosphere. The long root systems of perennial plants, as well as their lower rate of transpiration, mean that perennial crops do not need to be irrigated as often as annuals.”
With perennials, “Weeds are just not a problem,” says Jerry.
Jerry and his colleagues are working to develop perennial versions of such familiar crops as rice, wheat, and sorghum. Switchgrass, a perennial grass, is one of the plants considered for biofuel, an alternative to fossil fuel.
Plant breeders are working to show “proof of concept,” or proof that perennial crops can be reliable and profitable. “The benchmark is going to be a yield of one ton per hectare, with little to no environmental damage,” said Jerry.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . SOIL SCIENTIST
“Remember to study entire systems. . . . Sometimes soil scientists limit themselves to just one area of study: the chemistry of the soil, or the biology, or the ecology. Try to see the whole picture.”
“Garden! Understand how plants converting sunlight, water, and oxygen into simple sugars drives almost everything on the planet! It’s such an unbelievable process, and it’s so poorly understood even by scientists.”
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry agriculture Noun
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture agroecologist Noun
person who studies the role of agriculture in the environment.
legume that is often used as feed for livestock.
standard of achievement against which others are measured.
energy source derived directly from organic matter, such as plants.
type of grain, including wheat.
crop researcher Noun
person who studies the characteristics and behaviors of different agricultural crops over different time periods, places, and climates.
crop rotation Noun
the system of changing the type of crop in a field over time, mainly to preserve the productivity of the soil.
crop yield Noun
material produced by a farmer or farm, usually measured in weight per hectare.
Dust Bowl Noun
(1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.
branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecology ecosystem Noun
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem epiphany Noun
sudden revelation or insight.
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
Encyclopedic Entry: erosion farmer Noun
person who cultivates land and raises crops.
nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.
event that changes the outlook or perspective of a person or group of people about a topic.
genetically modified organism (GMO) Noun
living thing whose genes (DNA) have been altered for a specific purpose.
set of genes, or chromosomes, that hold all the inherited characteristics of an organism.
geographic information system (GIS) Noun
any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.
Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system) grassland Noun
ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.
Green Revolution Noun
the increase in food production due to improved agricultural technology.
water found in an aquifer.
Encyclopedic Entry: groundwater hardware Noun
fresh or dry grass used to feed livestock.
unit of measure equal to 2.47 acres, or 10,000 square meters.
Human Genome Project Noun
international project to study human DNA, and determine the sequences of the three billion base pairs that make up the human genome.
the end result of two different sources of input.
person who works or volunteers at a business in order to learn and gain experience.
watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.
Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation Land Institute Noun
organization working to develop an ecologically stable agricultural system with a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.
livestock noun, plural noun
animals raised for sale and profit.
having to do with very small organisms.
story or telling of events.
microscopic, worm-like animal.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient nutrient rate trial Noun
experiment that tracks the way different soils and plants absorb and use different nutrients.
happening on a yearly basis.
natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)
the study of the basic principles of knowledge.
flat, smooth area at a low elevation.
Encyclopedic Entry: plain Plains Indian Noun
one of many people and cultures native to the Great Plains in North America.
plant breeder Noun
person who studies the inherited characteristics of plants, and works to combine and reproduce them using hybrids and genetic engineering.
all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.
Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation rice Noun
grass cultivated for its seeds.
root system Noun
all of a plant's roots.
overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.
Encyclopedic Entry: runoff seep Verb
to slowly flow through a border.
electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
type of grain.
tall grass native to North America.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
organism that contains genetic material from another species.
evaporation of water from plants.
undergraduate. college student who has not graduated, as oppossed to a graduate student pursuing a master's or doctoral degree.
visible liquid suspended in the air, such as fog.
water infiltration Noun
process by which water on the ground surface or atmosphere enters the soil.
most widely grown cereal in the world.