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Farming for the future

Claire Campbell at Greenbrier Farm

The Furman University Earth and Environmental Sciences and Biology departments are steps closer to a better understanding of how sustainable agricultural practices can help both area farmers and the environment.

The departments have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase equipment for analyzing organic carbon and nitrogen in soil—two elements that determine soil health.

The NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant valued at $92,000 will fund the purchase and installation of a LECO TruMac Series C/N Macro Determinator for analysis of carbon and nitrogen content in soils, sediments, and vegetation.

Agroecological methods used by local farmers are improving low-yield farmland in the Upstate. In an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving, students and faculty across the EES, biology and chemistry departments will put the machine through its paces. Principal co-investigators for the grant are Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Brannon Andersen, PhD, and Biology Professor Greg Lewis, PhD.

Initially, the instrument will be used to analyze soil samples from two farms in the South Carolina Piedmont. The primary objective of the study is to understand how intensive grazing and no-till planting improve levels of soil organic carbon (SOC) and soil organic nitrogen (SON).

Researchers have shown that adequate SOC concentration is a measure of soil fertility and is closely tied to sustainable crop and grass production. SOC is vital for agricultural soil health because it improves water retention, reduces soil erosion, develops rich soil layers (a.k.a. horizons), and stabilizes nutrients. And higher grass yields make livestock production more financially viable with fewer expenses related to seasonal hay feed.

Simply put, “If a soil has adequate carbon, then drought and disease resistance increases, organisms in the soil become more biodiverse, and the need for chemical inputs declines,” says Andersen. And higher SOC levels can reduce surface runoff that transports fertilizer nutrients into water bodies, affecting water quality in the region.

“The farms we are studying, Greenbrier and 12 Aprils Dairy, are successfully using intensive grazing practices to rebuild the local, degraded soil. We can use this instrument to find where on their land these techniques are working best,” adds Andersen.

A secondary objective of the research and new equipment is to quantify the potential for pasture soils to serve as a carbon sink—a terrestrial reservoir that retains carbon and reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Andersen cites research showing that 25 to 75 percent of the SOC in soils of the world’s agroecosystems has been lost due to poor farming techniques. The jury is still out on whether no-till farming is an answer for the global warming conundrum, but more research can only lead to a better understanding of the looming threat to our planet.

As always, new equipment translates to more research opportunities for students at Furman and beyond. Says Andersen, “One of the chief objectives of our research program here at Furman is to train undergraduates to use research-grade instruments and to interpret data, which will prepare them for employment and graduate education.”

Students using the new instrument will conduct research in soil biogeochemistry, and results will directly benefit local farmers working to stem soil degradation. Interacting with farmers, students will gain an understanding of the importance of agroecosystems to society.

Andersen, who was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, will also study soil degradation through the University of Zadar in Croatia. He will collaborate with colleagues in the Department of Ecology, Agronomy, and Aquaculture to investigate soils associated with vineyards and olive groves in Croatia. Andersen aims to determine if there is a link between soil quality and plant disease. To do that, he’ll be sending soil samples to Furman for analysis.

An added benefit of the acquisition is expanding the body of knowledge associated with the River Basins Research Initiative at Furman, a project focused on how carbon and nitrogen cycling in streams and rivers respond to changing land use, such as urbanization. The current NSF grant complements the $98,000 grant awarded to Furman in 2001 for the purchase of equipment used in that ongoing effort.

While teaching and researching at the University of Zadar, Andersen can be reached via email, brannon.andersen@furman.edu, for more information about the award.

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