Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Favourite Soil: Illinois Soils

My Favourite Soil this week is written by Dave Rahe and has been republished from his blog Observations in Agriculture with some minor edits.

Jess Drake @soilduck on Twitter asked if anyone had a story to tell about their favorite soil and why it is their favorite. I can’t narrow it down to one really, but there several soils in Illinois that fascinate me for various reasons.

I grew up in the Mississippi River Valley in Monroe County (soil map here). Two fascinating soils on the home farm are Fults and Landes. Fults is a dark silty clay underlain by sandy and loamy sediments. Landes is a sandy loam. Neither is particularly productive in terms of Illinois soils, but that is home.

Tamalco is a moderately well drained soil on low lying ridges in south central and southern Illinois. It is distinctive because of the 7.5YR and 5YR hues in the upper subsoil. It is not a major soil, just interesting to see and distinctive. Another thing that makes it fascinating is the high sodium in the subsoil below the red layer.

Worthen is a well drained soil with a dark, very thick surface layer. The colors in this soil are classic earth tones. Much of the horseradish in Illinois was grown on Worthen and its catena mate Littleton, soils in Madison and St. Clair County at one time.

Cisne represents the southern Illinois claypan region and is worthy of recognition because of its large extent.

Drummer is the State Soil in Illinois. It is very extensive in the area covered by the Wisconsinan Glaciation. It is also a worthy representative of the wet, dark colored prairie soils that make Illinois such a productive agricultural state. Other similar soils that are also very extensive in Illinois include Sable and Virden soils.

Wyanet soils were mapped as Parr when I was a field soil scientist working on soil surveys. I always liked the look of this soil especially where it was formed in the Tiskilwa Till. In those areas, 7.5 YR hues are common. Redder than 10YR is not usual in Illinois at least in matrix colors.

Muscatune (formerly mapped Muscatine in Illinois) is one of the most productive soils in the world. We would like all of our soils to look like Muscatune. Some similar soils in Illinois that are probably equally productive with modern management are Bethalto, Ipava, Herrick, and Flanagan.

You can find more information on US soils at the USDA website and Illinois Soil Mapping.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Soil Scientist: Makhosazana

Meet Makhosazana Sika: Mad about Mollisols, Biochar Queen, Lover of Life!

Makhosazana grew up in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. Having lived in a city throughout her childhood, she would not have guessed a decade ago that she would call a small town in the Cape Winelands District her other home. She enrolled at Stellenbosch University to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Viticulture and Oenology because she wanted to become a winemaker. During her second year at varsity, she had her first Soil Science module in chemistry and fertility. She recalls a sparkle and passion in her former Soil Science professor’s eyes that made her seriously consider a career in the field of Soil Science. Makhosazana read up on career prospects in the discipline, sought guidance from people in the profession, her parents and then ultimately made the decision to study soil.

Although South Africa has its own unique soil classification system, Makhosazana’s favourite soil is the Mollisol. She particularly likes it because of its defining property of being highly arable due to the accumulation of humus on the soil surface horizon. She also identifies with Mollisols because of their rich dark colour that makes her think of biochar, her research interest. Makhosazana’s Master’s research was on the effect of applying locally produced biochar on the chemistry and fertility of low-nutrient holding sandy soil from the Western Cape, South Africa. Her love for soil and biochar research is on the rise as she is pursuing a PhD in her field.

For Makhosazana, a career in Soil Science is well balanced. Her favourite number is three and her chosen field of study has allowed her to be flexible. For example, she gets to wear camouflaged clothes when playing with soil in the field, dress up in her lab coat when running laboratory experiments, and rock up in cute sandals or heels for data analysis in her office. It’s a win-win-win situation!

You can contact or follow Makhosazana at @mp_thefirst

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Collaborate, Enjoy, Create, Include: Lessons from the Folk Festival

As winter sets in, Easter Weekend in Canberra can be bitterly cold and grey. Vibrant colours, beautiful tunes and sensational smells of foods from around the globe start pouring out of the Showground. The National Folk Festival (NFF) is another world in an otherwise depressing part of the year.

But why I am I writing about a Folk Festival? 

As I enjoyed my weekend of music, eating, dancing, laughing and chatting, I also did a lot of thinking. There are a lot of reasons why I love the NFF (and why I go back every year). It dawned on me that many of the things I love about the festival could be used to make science, including soil science, conferences more amazing.

The NFF thrives on collaboration, enjoyment, creativity and inclusion. Focusing on these four key things could really open up how we think about science communication and conferences.

What do I mean? 

As you wander around the Festival you notice the diversity of people; all ages (new borns to great grandparents), backgrounds, levels of education, levels of experience, experts and amateurs, interests and personalities. You can wear whatever you like. Get involved in anything. You will not be judged and there will always be a place for you to engage, meeting people, be creative, and above all... have fun. It is this sense of inclusion and engagement that allows a sense of broad community and learning. Using some of the techniques at the NFF could really make science, science communication and conferences great.

How do they do it? 

There is a space for everyone, and for many needs. The NFF has a space for pretty much everyone and everything. Like the traditional music festival/conference structure, there are workshop spaces, and places to perform. In addition, there are spaces where any musicians/artists (experts) can meet up and collaborate with each other. But, there are also spaces for the artists to pass on their skills, meet interested people, or to simply sit down with people of all different backgrounds and enjoy their common interest through music, laughter and conversation. 

Having a variety of spaces for people to meet, share, collaborate and exchange allows a range of people from different backgrounds to connect. It doesn't limit people to engaging in awkward conversation at a conference dinner or after a talk or with the aid of alcohol. It is dynamic and casual, and has the potential to really allow interesting conversations happen between people of all ages and backgrounds.

Anyone can share. There are always opportunities to showcase your talent and ideas. Even if you don't get a formal place to share your ideas, there are opportunities for anyone to share at the event. The Blackboard sessions are simply that; you put your name on an empty slot on a blackboard and you share your talents with the audience at that time. There are also more informal places to share talents known as Busk Stops. These locations could be used by anyone at any time to share their thoughts, music, talent or joke. It doesn't matter who you are or what type of Festival/conference participant you may be, it allows you to get involved and share yourself.

It is diverse and interesting. The Festival opens its eyes wide to interesting, new, creative, extraordinary and different. There is no one thing that is the same, and your are encouraged to be yourself and to be different. The encouragement to 'be whatever' really relaxes people, opens them up and makes them feel more willing to share and get involved. 

Age doesn't matter. Everyone is talented, no matter what their age, background or experience. And this is showcased in the youth parts of the Festival. There is a whole stage dedicate to younger performing artists (30's and under) and another for under 18's to give them the opportunity to shine. And shine they will! Much of the young talent was noticed and asked to be involved in the competitions, collaboration and the final concert. They also have the mantra of 'It's never to late to learn', with the aim that everyone will go home having learnt something new. 

Young learn from old. Old learn from young. It is great to see the mix of learning across generations, and ideas being sparked and fostered by all. 

Mixture of learning styles. There are formal workshops and performances, but also informal spaces and learning environments. It allows for a relaxed atmosphere and time for reflection, and where people can learn in a way that is best for them.  

Less is more. Many sessions run multiple times so that people can get to as much as they can. Not only does it allow people to really see what is on offer, but allows a good learning environment. It provides time for thinking, reflecting, engaging and debate.

It is accessible and everyone is invited to participate. Audience (and that is musician, artist, festival goer, interested person.. anyone!) can get involved and make the festival a great place. You can join workshops, attend various sessions, paint the space, be engaged in audience participation at concerts, sing, build the parade, go to a Busk Stop or Blackboard... etc. It is family friendly, with day care and kids opportunities. There are different pricing options or volunteering for those that don't want to pay, but happy to get involved in the community. 
It is about community, engagement, involvement for all and having fun. Anyone can apply to be involved, no matter your background. 

What do I suggest? 

The next time I think about running a conference or event, I am going to think about these things:
* Are there opportunities for everyone to participate? Rooms for casual chat, workshop space (formal and informal), blackboards/soap box, showcasing talent of all ages and backgrounds.
* How can we get the audience involved? Do we need to encourage more debate within talks or run experiments right there? Can we get people involved in the communication of science? 
* Is my conference accessible for everyone? Do we engage as many people as we can? 
* Do we give people plenty of opportunities to seek out the conference content? Are there different types of learning experiences? 
* Is there a sense of community? Fun? Laughter?
* Are there places to collaborate and meet, even if accidentally?
* Are we conscious of different age groups and backgrounds? Do we have day-care? Do we allow access and engagement for specialists and non-specialists? 
* Are we community focused? Are there ways we can improve the conference to make sure people of all backgrounds feel included and less attention on it being a 'specialists' event?
* Are we letting people 'be whatever'? Are we allowing creativity and the extraordinary?

Inclusion, and places to collaborate and create, really make events enjoyable. Creating a happy atmosphere allows for better learning and more positive and constructive communities. Re-thinking how we run conferences and events could allow for more positive relationships between soil scientists, land managers, government and other interested people. It could improve our science, communication and practicality of science development and on-ground uptake. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Forest's Unseen Hero: Fungus

This post comes from Meika Jensen, a freelance writer with and an aspiring graduate student at UC Berkeley looking to study the development of communications. Follow her on Twitter @MeikaJensen

Fungus is an important part of the ecosystem that is often overlooked and ignored, even by those in top masters degree programs or who are studying environmental sciences. But the time to remember is now. Fungi are essential because they not only play a symbiotic role with other plants but it also serves as a food source for mammals and invertebrates. Familiar fungi with common household uses include mushrooms and yeast, used in the making of bread, and mold, the source of penicillin. Spores and molds are included the fungi species and are vital to the ecosystem.

The role of fungus in the ecosystem is diverse, as it serves many purposes. Arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) fungi is present in two-thirds of the plant species. Its purpose is to decompose and process organic matter, but it thrives especially on extracting nitrogen from plants, essential for amino acid building proteins in our bodies. Fungi that efficiently process organic matter are the foundational agents for producing new healthy plants. This makes a healthy fungi microsystem essential for removing dead plant life and encouraging new growth.

In addition, fungi are also indispensable and instrumental in the production of phosphorous. Phosphorous is the essential element in cell division of plants and is vital for seedlings and young plant growth. Without a phosphorous base in the soil, plants grow spindly and produce stunted stems and tips. Phosphorous is necessary for strong grasses and farm crops.

Another important action of fungi is to withdraw crucial elements from the roots of trees to decompose rocks and turn them into soil. Fungi are actually an elemental extractor, decomposer, and creator of healthy soil. In turn, the healthy soil becomes the foundation for plants. In a symbiotic effect, the plants become fodder for animals and the livestock become the nutritional providers for humans.

The destruction of fungus eliminates the crucial tools for a new and healthy life cycle of the plants. This, in turn, produces crops and grasses that cannot sustain population or mammal growth, both which threaten the food supply of humanity. Unhealthy soil is the beginning of the destruction of the food chain that moves to plants, then animals and then humans. Lack of nutritious soil is devastating to humanity as we know it.

Puffball fungus: a forest nutrient cycler

Within the last decade, the uses and functions of fungi have been more researched and better understood and recorded to emphasize the critical role of fungi in the ecosystem. This new knowledge has enabled researchers to implement beginning standards for protecting fungi in the ecosystem. In the UK, there is a pilot project to protect varieties of fungi from 16 various leading botanical and biological research organizations, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Cabi. The parameters of the study envelope conservation and study of the diversity of fungi, contributing to the knowledge and public awareness of the function and scope of fungi, increasing research and resources to create a more diverse source of biological habitat, and to encourage more scientists to specialize in the field of taxonomic mycology.

At present there are only 10 mycologists in the UK, a number far too few to study such an important resource of our ecosystem. Though this mycologist shortage may seem esoteric to many, however it is a pressing issue as their research can be used in fields like medicine and engineering. Mold is often linked to costly problems in other industries, for instance the airlines, and require a trained mycologist to solve them.

While mycology degree programs do exist, encouraging more students to study the subject, or to go elsewhere and do an exchange program, may do the UK a great service. The John Innes Centre is one of the leading mycology institutes in the world but the bulk of the programs are located in other countries. However, in light of recent economic events, alerting students to viable professional opportunities may be all it takes to fill these positions.