Digging In

Podcast: Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

Podcast: Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

By SHP Staff on Tuesday, 30 June, 2020

Elyssa McFarland is the Development Manager for the Soil Health Partnership, but she is also a farmer with her very own SHP research trial.  She is passionate about soil, and can’t remember a time when soil didn’t excite her.

“I think my interest in soil started pretty early, but I always thought our farm was really interesting.  We have super sandy soils that we have to irrigate, and we have some really rich deep prairie soil that tends to be a little too wet. It was a really interesting mix of things I saw growing up on the farm,” she said.

Later in her life, after being thrown onto the FFA soil judging team last minute, her dad told her that she’d never really know what it was to be a farmer until she jumped right in.  So she rented a farm and started making decisions.  She quickly got a true farmer experience and still loved studying soil.

As a farmer, she sees anecdotal changes on her farm due to the soil health management practices she’s incorporated.  As a researcher, she is really interested in being able to measure and track the changes and tie them to outcomes on the farm. 

In Elyssa’s mind, soil health is the new frontier in agriculture. 

“Soil is this medium that allows us to interact with all these other parts of our community and our industry.  Soil health is such a new area, even though we’ve learned a lot and we’re better at managing our soils than we used to be, there are still really complex things that happen over time, and those cycles and changes throughout the year are really variable.  There’s a lot for us to learn about how those changes interact with our environment and our crops,” she said.

New opportunities abound for people that are interested.  Elyssa looks forward to a future where scientists and farmers are interested in what is going on a bit deeper in the soil than where we focus now.  Understanding subsoils could offer big improvements in yield and water holding capacity, she says.  Also, infield soil testing could change the future.

Learn more about the technologies and improvements Elyssa McFarland looks forward to in the podcast below.


Host: John Mesko

Guest: Elyssa McFarland, Development Manager for the Soil Health Partnership

John Mesko (00:30):

Hi, I'm John Mesko, and welcome to another episode of The People of Soil Health. Today, my guest is Elyssa McFarland, who is the development manager for the Soil Health Partnership. It is a little bit unique to have Elyssa on as a guest, because not only is she working with me on a regular basis to help us advance the resource base for helping farmers to learn about and adopt soil health building farming practices, she's also a farmer and she also is one of SHP's farmers with a research plot on her farm. So she obviously has a passion for soil health. She's an avid podcast listener. So I'm excited to have her as a guest. Elyssa, thank you for joining me.

Elyssa McFarland (01:16):

Thanks for having me, John.

John Mesko (01:17):

You and I have had a lot of conversations about soil, obviously, and the business of soil health, and how as an organization and as an agricultural community we can advance soil health. Your life really is a lot about soil, and I know your passion for soil has been deep and long lasting. You even have a dual master's degree in agronomy and soil science. How did you become so interested in soil health?

Elyssa McFarland (01:47):

Well, I think my interest in soil started pretty early. I didn't probably recognize it as an interest in soil, but I always thought our farm was really interesting because we have these super sandy soils that we have to irrigate, and then we have some really rich, deep prairie soil that tends to be a little too wet, and it's just a really interesting mix of things I saw growing up on the farm. And then when I was in high school, I was in FFA, and I had the opportunity to be on the soil judging team for FFA. I got thrown in the mix at the last minute, and my advisor told me to get on the bus, we're going to go look at some soil. And I just thought it was really fascinating.

Elyssa McFarland (02:28):

And I guess I've never really changed courses. I've always really found soil fascinating and pursued degrees in it, and was very thankful when I was wrapping up my master's degree that this opportunity was available. I felt like Soil Health Partnership was this really unique combination of practical on farm, how you get things done to improve your soil, while also taking a really serious look and consideration about how our soils and what we do on farm interact with other things in our community, in our environment.

John Mesko (03:00):

That's fascinating. And there's a lot of people who work in agriculture who have grown up around agriculture or have worked around farms, but there are becoming obviously fewer and fewer people who are actively farming. As the number of farmers, as the percentage of the population, continues to drop in our country, there are very few people really who have firsthand experience on the farm. You are actively involved in your family's farm operation. Can you tell us a little bit about what your role is there?

Elyssa McFarland (03:32):

Yeah, so I started renting a farm that's separate from my family's farm, actually while I was still a student at Iowa State. I was expressing some interest in maybe coming back to the farm and helping out in some capacity. And basically, my dad said, "You're never going to get what this is really like unless it's your name on the loan and you have to decide when to pull the trigger and market grain and the complexities of trying to get everything in the field and managing all these different timelines." And so I jumped in and started renting this farm, and I've learned a lot along the way. And as we have worked through the estate plan and our family farm business plan and where we're headed in the future, I've been very fortunate to pick up responsibilities along the way with our primary family operation and learning more about how to do things at the next scale up. So it's been really exciting. I'm very fortunate to work with my family.

John Mesko (04:31):

Well, that's great. And I really think it lends a lot of credibility to your work, all of the work that you've done at Soil Health Partnership from being a field manager and now as development manager. I think people really want to know that the person they're talking to who is espousing certain values and certain beliefs and understandings about soil health really can have some firsthand experience. And you do, and I think it's a great asset for us as an organization. On your farm, you have an SHP research site. Tell me a little bit about what that trial is, and what you've learned about soil health from that trial so far.

Elyssa McFarland (05:12):

Well, as I mentioned, we have some really sandy soils on our farm. And so one of the things that I'm interested in exploring is if we can improve our water holding organic matter in those super sandy soils. And so our side-by-side trials looking at putting cover crops on one of these sandier fields, on half the field and then not on the other half. And we've been doing no till for a long time, largely because it was an economical issue. When you till sand that frequently, it becomes harder to manage. You get a lot of sand moving in the field in the early spring, and it almost sandblasts your crops when they're smaller.

Elyssa McFarland (05:53):

And then it's also just expensive to maintain tillage equipment when it's getting roughed up by the sand so much, tends to wear things down pretty quickly. So we've been doing no till for a while. I feel like we've plateaued with the improved water holding that we have from doing no till, and I think that there's an opportunity there where we can increase the organic matter a little bit, have a little bit more residue protecting the soil through the summer that might reduce some of the water loss, and be able to have a little bit more cushion through some of those dryer spells, which we've had recently in Iowa.

John Mesko (06:28):

And when you think about the long term evolution of not only this trial, but also the soil health building practices you're implementing there, what do you expect to learn in the future?

Elyssa McFarland (06:39):

So I think that in the future, one of the things that I'm interested in learning more about is the way that we can measure some of the anecdotal changes that we're seeing on farm. Obviously it takes a long time to change things in the soil. And I think that there's an opportunity there, as we have advanced techniques for both infield and lab measurements, to be able to track some of those changes and better tie them to outcomes on the farm. Obviously that's something Soil Health Partnership is engaged in, there's a lot of different research entities working on this. And I think it'll take some time, but that's one of the things I'm excited about for the future of soil science.

John Mesko (07:19):

One of the things we talk a lot about at Soil Health Partnership, and you and I have had a lot of conversations about this as well, is what does the adoption process look like for the typical farmer? So as we think about farmers who are watching you and what you're doing on your farm, or another farm in the community, and they're watching that and learning and trying to understand a little bit about what's going on, what do you think becomes the tipping point for farmers when they decide to implement a new practice, whether it's cover crops or reduced tillage, or maybe even livestock grazing? What are some of the things that, in your opinion, are important for farmers to think about as they begin to consider that transition?

Elyssa McFarland (08:06):

Well I think, John, you and I have talked about this a couple of times and we've learned about it across the entire geography of Soil Health Partnership. In different regions there are really different motivators from a sociological perspective in terms of decision making influencers in the community. And I think that's something that, it's really complex to pin down, but I think one of the universal things about small businesses is changes have to be well thought out. They have to have a purpose behind them. And for soil health management practices, they are so multifunctional that sometimes I think it's hard to define what the specific outcome you're looking for on a particular operation is. And I think that once you can pin down what the goal is, it becomes a lot easier to adopt practices.

Elyssa McFarland (08:54):

And so I think that I've seen it in our own community when farmers have really been able to hone in, especially on some of our more rolling ground, on spring erosion as being the primary thing that they're really seeing a difference in. With increased rainfall, higher biological activity, better turnover of residue is a good thing, but then it also leaves the soil more bare in the spring. And so I think that being able to pinpoint that, "Okay, spring erosion on hilly ground is the thing that we're most interested in addressing here", it becomes a lot more obvious which practice to select and how to manage it with your other time constraints you have on the farm.

John Mesko (09:34):

I think that's really important thing that you just said, is basically identifying what's the concern that you're trying to address with a change in practice. And as you're highlighting spring erosion, in other places of the country it might be winter erosion. It might be water holding capacity, or yield, or whatever the case may be. What is the resource concern, and start with that rather than this vague, still understanding of what is soil health. I just want better soil. So that's a good consideration, but to be more specific I think is more motivating, and maybe creates a better thought or pathway towards success. What do you think about that?

Elyssa McFarland (10:16):

Oh, I very much agree with that. I was thinking, as you were talking about that, how there is this general interest in soil health. And I think that there's some really interesting farmers who are engaged from that just exploratory level, which I think is good because it continues to advance and push the envelope on practices. But when we think about more of the broader farming community, there's so many different things going on. And maybe the person who is being out there on the edge exploring some really different soil health practices may be not as engaged in ethanol, or trade, or a more advanced marketing plan. There's different ways that people like to explore within their own businesses, and I think that's something that's really healthy about our industry and continues to move us forward because there's so many of these independent businesses out here on the landscape, each of us as farmers trying out new things and exploring stuff. And so I think that there's a role for everybody to play in understanding their soils better, because it's really the foundation of what we do, but I like learning from other folks.

John Mesko (11:23):

Well, I think you've really hit the nail on the head here in thinking about agriculture much more broadly than just yield, or marketing capacity, or the day to day logistics of operating a farm. You're really looking at agriculture as a big picture industry, and I think that's really essential as we talk about how we move, as a community, forward in this. I know you've said in the past that your belief is soil health is the new frontier in agriculture, and I would certainly agree with you. I'm curious from your perspective, why you think that and how that fits into what you're doing there on the farm and at Soil Health Partnership.

Elyssa McFarland (12:03):

I really think that soil health is the combination of a lot of different things within soil science and soil properties, and that's really the foundation of growing the crops, which is what we feed to livestock. It's how we interact with our local watersheds, with our local air quality. And so I think soil is this medium that allows us to interact with all the other parts of our community, of our industry. And I think that that's the reason why I think it's been the next frontier, I guess.

Elyssa McFarland (12:32):

The other thing that I think about when I think about soil health is that it's such a new area, even though we've learned a lot and are so much better at managing our soils than we used to be, there's still really complex things that happen, especially across timescales. So throughout the growing season, as our soils are warming up, as we're putting out all this biomass in a crop, and then as our soils are starting to cool down and shut down for the winter, especially up in the upper Midwest, those cycles and changes throughout the year are really variable. I think there's a lot of things we can learn about how those interact both with our environment, as well as with our crops.

John Mesko (13:11):

Well, I think that's great. And I agree with you, soil health is the unifying component in agriculture. We talk a lot about carbon sequestration, we talk a lot about water quality, we talk about resilience and the ability for farms and farmers to have resilient businesses. And really all of those things start with soil health. And it's something that every corner of agriculture can agree on, and consumers can relate to it as well. So I appreciate that perspective.

John Mesko (13:41):

I know that you are very active on Twitter, and I've observed a lot of interactions and a lot of involvement with the soil health community and with farmers on Twitter. And with that perspective, I'm curious, what kinds of things are you seeing and learning from a social media perspective on soil health?

Elyssa McFarland (14:01):

When it comes to soil health on Twitter, I feel like there's a pretty broad spectrum. And sometimes people don't always identify themselves as a quote unquote soil health farmer on Twitter. But I think that there's some interesting, really nitty gritty conversations happening on Twitter about practice management, that I occasionally get sucked into the deep dive on a Twitter thread about managing nutrients with strip till or some very specific topic like that. But I think that's one of the fun aspects of Twitter, one of the things I learn the most about is those deep dives on people's opinions on different types of practice management. And it gets a little technical, so I have to be careful when I am recommending Twitter followers to some of our partners with SHP because I don't want people to be overwhelmed by some the technical stuff. Because there's also just a lot of really good fun follows on Twitter too, just to keep up with what's going on in different parts of the country too. So there's a nice balance of seeing a beautiful cloud bank from Minnesota and also getting some great nitty gritty manure management tips from Indiana.

John Mesko (15:11):

Well, that's the beautiful thing about social media, you can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

Elyssa McFarland (15:16):


John Mesko (15:17):

To wrap up today's conversation, one of the things we've done in some of these interviews is to try a little lightning round of questions. All right? So these are fun, but hopefully interesting questions to help our audience get to know you a little bit better and put our conversation in some context. So are you ready?

Elyssa McFarland (15:40):

I think so.

John Mesko (15:40):

Okay. So what is the most interesting thing you have learned from a farmer?

Elyssa McFarland (15:47):

I'm going to go with what I've learned from farmers who are also hunters. So I like to do a little bit of hunting from time to time, especially upland bird hunting. And so I have learned a lot from talking to other farmers about wildlife and where they see it in times of year, especially in the spring related to pheasant nesting and quail nesting. And so that's been probably the most interesting tidbits I've picked up from farmers, have been about wildlife stuff. But it's not really ag related, but it's the stuff that I've found the most interesting and different.

John Mesko (16:18):

I don't know. I think it's spot on. We don't farm in a vacuum, no matter how uniform a farm community might be, or the geography might be, farm is part of an ecosystem for sure and improving soils is certainly going to change the dynamics of wildlife. I think that's fantastic.

John Mesko (16:43):

When you think about careers in soil health, or the advancement of soil health in the broader agricultural community, what do you think are some of the most, or one of the most, under appreciated opportunities that lie ahead?

Elyssa McFarland (16:57):

When it comes to under appreciated things about the soil, I feel like in ag, we spend a lot of time focusing on the top six, eight inches of soil, sometimes top foot of soil. And our row crops are accessing a much deeper profile of soil usually. And I think that there's some things that we're going to learn, hopefully, in the coming years about our sub subsoil and how we might be able to do some remote sensing around that, or something like that, to be able to learn more about what's happening in our subsoil. And I feel like a lot of people are talking about that right now, but the changes that we could see in those higher clay content subsoils, or maybe some of those more densely packed subsoils, could really have improvements both in yield, as well as water holding capacity and the soil being able to take more rainwater, store it better, which I think could have ripple effects throughout a watershed. I feel like there's some cool opportunities there that we don't always focus on because we're so obsessed with the top soil and the first foot or so of soil.

John Mesko (18:03):

Sure. Well, that makes sense, and I would agree with you. Here's an interesting question. I've pondered this a lot myself. If you won the lottery and had to buy a farm, where would you buy it and what would you raise?

Elyssa McFarland (18:20):

So I would definitely buy a farm in Louisa County, because I'm a bit of a home girl when it comes to the farm. But I think I would try raising small grains, probably barley for malting and then make some beer out of it.

John Mesko (18:36):

So a little value added is what you say.

Elyssa McFarland (18:39):

Yeah. I'd probably build a malt house.

John Mesko (18:43):

Yeah. And you'd probably have the spent distiller grains, you'd feed to the cattle.

Elyssa McFarland (18:47):

Exactly. Just get a whole nice tight little circle happening.

John Mesko (18:51):

Yeah. Okay. So thinking about wrapping this up and looking to the near future, what do you think will be the most surprising thing to happen in soil health in the next five years?

Elyssa McFarland (19:03):

I'm hopeful that it will be some sort of sensor or something in fields to help with measurements in field of soil. I feel like there's starting to be some more momentum in that space, and I think that I might be surprised by what can get done. I feel like I tend to go a little bit more old school when thinking about how to measure soil, and I want to take it out of the field and do lab analysis on it and do a little bit more of the traditional take. But I feel like I'm going to be surprised by what we can measure, either remotely or with an infield sensor in the next few years. I hope I'm surprised by that.

John Mesko (19:44):

I would love it too. I think that'd be a game changer in terms of helping people to understand and implement practices, especially if they could see results in real time.

John Mesko (19:53):

Thank you, Elyssa, not only for this visit for the last few minutes here, but also for your work with the Soil Health Partnership. It's great to work with you on a regular basis and understand a little bit more about what you're doing there on the farm and how that relates to our broader community. I appreciate the chance to visit with you. Thank you very much.

Elyssa McFarland (20:13):

Yeah. Thanks John.