What Is Soil Science?
It’s the study of the first few meters of the earth’s surface. That part we call dirt or soil and where most plant roots are located. If you push a shovel into the ground and pull up a shovel’s full of soil, that’s the depth that most soil scientists study. The chemical, physical, and biological properties of that shovelful of soil will determine what’s happening in the sub-soil (the soil layer beneath that top few meters), and the deeper substratum.
Where Do Soil Scientists Work?They work all over the globe. Most soil scientists work part of the time in trial fields or helping farmers create greater productivity on their farms and the rest of their time in labs analyzing the data from the fields they have walked.
Soil scientists work along a wide range of sub-specialties: soil mapping, carbon sequestration, nutrient management, pedalogy (how soils form), and the physical, chemical, and microbial properties of soil. The focus here is on those scientists who are studying the physical, chemical, and microbial properties of soils and how to improve them.
Soil Scientists At Work
Dr. Wendy Taheri
Doctor of Philosopy (Ph.D.) Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Founding partner Of TerraNimbus, LLC
Photo source: ecofarmingdaily.com
Dr. Taheri studies the role of arbuscuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AM Fungi) in providing nutrients to plants. She also studies the impact synthetics have on the plant-fungi symbiosis.
Recently she has been studying the interactions between soil phosphorus and microorganisms. She has completed a study that says
“…soil biological activities continually transform P into forms with varying mobility and plant-availability and therefore introduce a kinetic aspect to P retention and plant availability.”
She questions the use of conventional soil tests to direct P applications because it doesn’t take into account the fluid nature of P in soil as a result of the interactions with microorganisms and plants.
Dr. Sieglinde Snapp
PhD Plant Physiology
Photo source: canr.msu.edu
Professor of Soils and Cropping Systems Ecology and Associate Director of Center for Global Change & Earth Observations, Michigan State University, MIDr. Snapp is interested not only in the soil food web, but in how agricultural systems work. Her research includes plant soil nutrient cycling and how the use of cover crops contributes to soil biology. Dr. Snapp works on “…ecologically sound design of agriculture through multidisciplinary approaches, long-term field experimentation, participatory action research, and systems modeling.” Dr. Snapp has found
“When the soil food web is restored, farmers no longer need to apply chemicals as ecosystem functions are restored. Reduced irrigation and plowing requirements also result in cost savings.”
Microorganisms build soil structure, and with natural farming practices, prevent soil erosion by wind and water. They also help break up compaction layers allowing roots to penetrate deeper into the soil, for greater health and productivity.
Dr. Ashok Patra
PhD Soil Science and Agricultural ChemistryPhoto source: projectmanagement.com
Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil Science, is interested in Disease-Suppressive Soils. Soil disease suppression occurs when a soil-borne disease is reduced even when the host plant and inoculum are in the soil.
This is possible, according to Dr. Patra’s research, because “The disease-suppressive capacity is mainly attributed to diverse microbial communities present in the soil that could act against soil-borne pathogens in multifaceted ways.”
Dr. Patra also says “…there has been increasing evidence on the role of soil abiotic factors that largely influence the disease suppression. The intricate interactions of the soil, plant, and environmental components in a disease triangle make this process complex yet crucial…”
Conventional farming practices that include tillage and heavy use of synthetics disrupt the soil, plant, microorganism triangle and allow pathogens to become dominant. Plants aren’t as healthy and more fertilizers are used, creating a vicious cycle.
Dr. Louis Schipper
PhD Soil Boigeochemistry
Photo source: sciencelearn.org
Professor, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Waikoto, New Zealand.
Microbial ecology and carbon exchange in pastures are the major research interests for Dr. Schipper.
His special interest is riparian wetlands (wetlands close to streams and lakes) and their affect on nitrate leaching. On slopes he has found that the topsoil from conventionally farmed fields flow into downslope streams and waterways during major rain events. This loss of topsoil also entails a loss of microorganisms and an increase in pasture effluent.
Dr. Schipper also is working on a number of research projects that include soil carbon and carbon sequestration.
Ray ArchuletaPhoto source: soilhealthacademy.org
Certified Professional Soil Scientist with over 30 years’ experience with the NRCS as a water quality specialist, soil conservationist, and conservation agronomist.
In his retirement he founded the Soil Health Academy, where biomimicry strategies and agroecology principles are taught.
The goal is to improve soil function on a national scale. The Soil Health Academy’s goal is to teach participants “…how to improve soil health through practical, regenerative agricultural principles that are the key to farming and ranching success.”
Dr. Eric Brevik
Dean of the College of Agricultural, Life, and Physical Sciences
Photo source: soil.copernicus.org
Professor of Geology and Soils, Dickinson State University, ND.
Publisher of SOIL, an online interdisciplinary soil science research magazine.
Dr. Brevik believes that everyone is, in one way or another, involved with soil. He invites more disciplines to examine the interconnections of soil with “…biodiversity, biofuels/energy security, climate change, ecosystem services, food security, human health, land degradation, and water security, to name a few."
An interdisciplinary approach to soil science leads to a deeper understanding of the interconnections between the soil under our feet and the microbiome in our gut, just to cite an example.
Dr. Elaine Ingham
Photo source: soilfoodweb.com
Dr. Ingham is the founder of Dr. Elaine’s Soil Food Web School. She is a world recognized soil biologist who is passionate about empowering people to create soil full of life. Dr. Ingham wants to make the scientific basis of healthy soil accessible to ordinary people with her “Soil School.” She works with community garden organizers, individuals interested in growing their own food, and commercial farmers. In Dr. Ingham’s words she explains the difference between dirt and soil.
Dirt is sterile. It’s made up of minerals – clay, silt, sand – and, at best, a small amount of organic matter as well as disease pathogens and anaerobic bacteria. Soil, on the other hand, is more than just minerals and organic matter. It’s a food web made up of fungi and bacteria, which are preyed upon by protozoa, nematodes, micro-arthropods, and other larger organisms. No two patches of earth will have the same soil food web. Why?
The microorganisms aren’t in charge of the complex cycles of the soil food web. It’s the plants themselves which are in control of the action. As the plant nutrient needs change over the season, the plant stimulates different bacteria and fungi to supply nutrients.
Dr. Pardon Muchaonyerwa
Photo source: Dr. Muchaonyerwa LinkedIn page
Professor University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa
Dr. Muchaonyerwa is now researching phosphorus and potassium management in agriculture, gully rehabilitation, and soil carbon storage.
He is interested in how to use organic waste, such as duckweed, in both nutrient recovery and the fertilizer value of the macophyte biomass.
Dr Muchaonyerwa stated
“Like other tropical and subtropical countries, soils of South Africa are either too acidic, with low nutrients, or too salt affected. Waste from anthropogenic activities, including mining and other industrial activities, reduce the quality of some of the best potential soils”
The issues facing South Africa from anthropogenic activities face the entire world, so he speaks for us all.
Dr. Boris Boincean
Photo source: slaviccenter.osu.edu
Professor and Head, Selectia Research Institute of Field Crops, Alecu Russo State University, Moldova
Dr, Boincean’s research is on field crops and the use of cover crops. He has numerous studies that indicate the use of cover crops, especially legumes, is highly advantageous for winter wheat production. Winter wheat is grown extensively on the Steppes. He has stated
"Sustainability demands a rapid transition to farming in an ecological way – with a different structure of the sown areas, no black fallow, less land under row crops and an increase of the area under compact-drilled crops including perennial legumes and grasses, accompanied by re-integration of crop and animal husbandry."
Dr Rattan Lal
Photo source: worldfoodprize.org
Dr. Lal is a professor of Soil Science and founding Director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center, Ohio State University. He is one of the most eminent soil scientists of our time.
In 2020 he received the World Food Prize for developing a soil-centric approach to growing food while conserving natural resources and mitigating climate change.
His accomplishments span over five decades and he has helped countless smallholder farmers attain food security. Millions of hectares of natural tropical ecosystems have been saved from destruction through his efforts, creating enormous areas of carbon sequestration.
His research has always focused on improving soil health as the basis for a healthy society. He explored and brought to the forefront techniques such as no-tillage, cover cropping, mulching, and agroforestry. Dr. Lal pointed out the health of soil is essential to irrigation and fertilizer efficiency. His work in the 1970s ran counter to conventional farming techniques but has been proven over the years by more than one soil scientist.
The work of Dr. Rattan Lal is being taken up by many other soil scientists across the world. The words of Dr. Lal explain soil perfectly:
"I believe soil is a living thing. That’s what soil health means, soil is life. Every living thing has rights. Therefore, soil has rights. As long as you are consuming the natural resources - food, water, elements - coming from the soil, you owe it to soil to put something back, to give something back, whatever you can."
Soil is the basis of terrestrial life. All terrestrial life. Every living thing on the planet depends on soil. And yet this material which is hidden beneath the surface of the earth is underappreciated, not recognized.
There are many more soil scientists than are possible to name in this article. The fact that soil is being studied so intensely and its importance is being recognized is a very good sign for humanity.
Soil scientists in the 21st century are studying all the aliveness of soil; the creation of humus from the action of macro and microorganisms on decaying organic matter, the mutualistic relationships between microorganisms and plants, and the underground communication networks created by fungi. There’s so much to learn about the soil beneath our feet.
If you enjoyed this read, check out our other blogs. There is a lot to learn to improve your crop yields, your farm profit, and the health of your soil.