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07. Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

Soil health indicators

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.