Alex in Colombia

Publication date: 
November 20, 2016

Author: Alex Liebman

CowsThe past few days I have had the opportunity to spend time with a group of small farmers and agroecology researchers from Universidad de la Amazonia in the agricultural area near Florencia, Caquetá. Caquetá is one of the agricultural frontier regions of Colombia - the Andes descend into vast plains full of cattle, barbed wire, men with lightweight ponchos, cowboy hats, and rubber boots. Remnant patches of dense Amazonian forest remain along rivers, around houses. Secondary stands emerge where the land, after decades of extensive grazing upon acidic, weather soils can no longer support production. Yet - the region is dominated by grass - monoculture stands of Brachiaria hybrids, fields displaying red gulleys of ancient soils, cows wandering in between shady patches. Dusty towns, swelter in mid-day heat, signs on small tiendas advertise cold beer and upcoming cockfights.

Amidst these expansive grazing lands are small farmers who fundamentally challenge hacienda-style production through a mix of home gardens (yucca, cacao, sugar cane, bananas) and small dairy operations. The farmers I was lucky to meet had fascinating, tragic, and quite complex stories of colonization, territorial dispossession, recolonization, and bio-physical and socio-political production pressures. Many had been small-scale coca farmers and were re-located from the southern Colombia province of Putamayo as an attempt by the government to simultaneously reduce domestic production of cocaine and establish indigenous resguardos. Yet, for many of the farmers, their arrival in the region coincided with U.S.- backed Plan Colombia, a period of intense militarization focused on eradicating the FARC. Ironically, many of the farmers stayed on their farms throughout helicopter raids and ground patrols, yet were forced to flee their farms as paramilitaries descended into the region in 2003 *AFTER* the official period of Plan Colombia. Hundreds of paramilitary forces occupied farms and small hamlets, in this time, small farmers, town officials, teachers, any folks with "Communist" ties could be tortured, killed, or expelled. Thus, recently, since ~ 2012, many of the small farmers have now re-colonized their farms, re-building a mixture of dual-purpose cattle production and subsistence farming after living in nearby cities. They are challenged, among other things, by little state support, distance from markets, and quite degraded soils (low PH, little available P, high Al toxicity).

Amidst the histories of violence and dispossession, howeverm I think there is a quite hopeful possibility that these small farmers can fundamentally challenge the logic of extensive cattle grazing and its associated ecological havoc and dispossession. Folks at UNIAMAZONAS are working with groups of small farmers on reforestation, agroecological production, and strengthening producer organizations. Of course, this is balanced by the forces of rampant land speculation and rising land values driving by narco-trafficking money laundering (these absentee "farmers" of course, having little interest in the forest dynamics, soils, local communities. Many farmers spoke of the isolation the face amidst ever-expanding haciendas and of the temptation to sell their land. However, on other farms, teenagers spoke eagerly of silvopasture plans and the technicalities of implementation with the group of university students.

I think there are a slew of interesting questions such as: 
In a post-conflict Colombia what role can small farmer organizations play in fundamentally contesting "the restructuring of agriculture that follows the current processes of globalization and liberalization" and the Colombian, domestic processes of rural violence, dispossession, and land degradation.

Can small farmers play a dynamic, active role in reforestation of the Colombian Amazonian-agriculture frontier?

As I try to understand the dynamic of colonization/recolonization, forest transition, and the gradients across subsistence, entrepreneurial, and large-scale agri-business (and their interactions with the broader political-economic transitions that have taken place), have been finding van der Ploeg's work very helpful (e.g. "There are undoubtedly empirical correlations between size and scale of farming and the different modes of farming. The point is, though, that the essence of the difference resides somewhere else (i.e. in the different ways in which the social and the material are patterned). Peasants, for instance, create fields and breeds of cows that differ from those created by entrepreneurs and corporate farmers."

Alex with farmerAs my first phase of research in Colombia begins to wind down, I am excited for the possibilities of combining bio-physical plant soil studies with small farmer movements taking place throughout Colombia (and around the globe) tying political empowerment, sovereignty, and ecological food production.

Until next time,


Soil health and nutrient management training for immigrant and minority farming communities workshop

Publication date: 
September 21, 2016

Author: Anne Pfeiffer

2016 SARE PDP workshopIn September 2016, about 20 farmers, educators, and researchers gathered at the Good Acre to spend 2 days learning about soil health and cover crops. The workshop was the first event to be held as part of a SARE Professional Development Program grant titled “Soil health and nutrient management training for immigrant and minority farming communities.” The workshop was designed for immigrant farmer leaders wishing to learn more about using cover crops for fertility and soil health, as well as other educators working with immigrant and minority growers. The hands-on training aimed to give immigrant farm leaders ideas and tools to share knowledge with other growers in their communities, as well as enable Ag educators to more effectively work with immigrant growers on cover crop and soil health topics. Topics included using cover crops to increase farm productivity and profitability, reduce fertilizer costs, and improve plant and soil health and addressed choosing the right cover crop for your farm goals and available equipment. A follow-up field day in March will demonstrate techniques that allow growers to build soil fertility by planting winter cover crops in high tunnels.

Field trip @ Batalden's farm

Publication date: 
April 27, 2016

Author: Alex Liebman

I am writing this over a cup of coffee, having a slow morning waking up as I got back late last night after a legume cover cropping field day at Phil Batalden's farm 6 miles south of Lamberton, MN.  Amidst wind turbines and endless fields of prime agricultural land, the few paved roads are often full of tractor-trailers hauling corn for ethanol production, soybean for feed, or miscellaneous materials.  The sky is endless in all directions; weather fronts and cloud formations birth, grow, and mature in a single spectacle.

Batalden's farm field day

The day was rainy, windy, and about 35 degrees F, yet the field day was a success.  More than 25 people came, huddled inside canvas jackets or rain coats, many replete with a seed company logo.  As people poured out of Buick Park Avenues and Ford F-350 trucks, sloshing through the drainage ditch to see the cover crop demonstration, Phil explained cover crop choices, the previous crop, and his plans for the following year.  Phil and his son Ryan transitioned their conventional corn-soy farm to an organic grain and cover crop seed production farm about 15 years ago.  This was, according to Phil, a calculated decision - he didn't think that he could mechanize rapidly enough to maintain pace with the evolving machinery and management trajectories in conventional farming.  By converting to organic, he could maintain his farm size and current machinery while also improving the soil on his land.  Now, Phil and Ryan farm a combined 750 acres, far less than the average farm size in southwest Minnesota.  Various side projects and businesses have sprung from this transition - for example, Phil's daughter spent several years making camelina oil from farm-produced crops and marketing the oil to Twin Cities retailers.  While Phil is much too humble to boast, as he describes the long-term demographic outmigration in southwest Minnesota, it is clear he sees his farm's diversification as a small step towards more a more vibrant rural landscape.  Ryan, his son, is more explicit - as an active member of the Land Stewardship Project, he has traveled to the U.S. Capitol to demand changes to federal crop insurance and direct payments plans that lock-in highly capitalized corn-soy production, limiting the ability of new farmers to acquire sufficient land to begin farm operations.

Vetch nodulesThe cover crops we planted in the fall were doing well, albeit a bit battered by the cold rain.  As we dug into the muddy ground, we found roots covered by nodules.  Cutting them open, they were bright red, a sign that leghemoglobin was binding oxygen, keeping it from the nitrogenase enzyme, allowing the rhizobia bacteria in the nodule to respire - in short - signs of active biological nitrogen fixation! Many of the questions the farmers asked stretched the limits of knowledge of Julie, Sharon, and I - what will control vetch better – 2,4-D or glyphosate?  If most of the plant material has the nitrogen I want in my soil, how do no-till or burn-down practices affect the nitrogen credit?

Our lab largely focuses on the biological and biogeochemical aspects of carbon and nitrogen cycling in agroecosystems, with comparatively less knowledge regarding the technicalities of agronomic production.  This allows us to ask questions regarding decomposition, how various types of management impact nitrogen availability, or the potential for different cover cropping treatments to contribute to soil organic matter pools. However, we don't necessarily know the mode-of-action of various herbicides, the exact days to maturity of corn varieties, or how cover cropping will impact crop insurance payments.  

My own opinion is that agronomy desperately needs to incorporate ecological perspectives into research, outreach, and practice.  The perspectives that agroecology bring to bear on historically narrow agronomic research foci based on increased crop productivity are increasingly necessary in a world facing climate, economic, and political crises of global proportions.  Yet, especially after the field day, I am struck by the need for our lab to improve our agricultural production knowledge in speaking with farmers about these systems.  How can we expect and promote adoption of cover cropping without intimate knowledge of farmer production pressures, struggles, perception of risk, and the surrounding political economy? Broadly, I think there is a need to more explicitly define and interpret the agroecosystem at hand – re-shifting the object of analysis from, say "plant-soil agroecology" to include land-use ecologies, landscape ecologies, and farmer ecologies in our work.  In these contexts, then, cropping rotations, cover crop termination techniques, spatial distributions of plant-soil processes, and farmers' experiences would inform the research process and systems development alongside analyses of soil health and nitrogen cycling.  

Batalden's farm field day

A shorter way of saying this might be:  As a graduate student focused on coursework, my own myopic PhD research proposal, the urban bike ride to school, and intellectual debates within the fields of ecology and agronomy, it is exciting, inspiring, and humbling to collaborate with Phil and other farmers to better understand cover cropping systems, both in their biological idiosyncrasies and their manifestation on the landscape.

After a long bout in the rain, we headed to Phil's barn to eat cookies, drink coffee, and discuss cover cropping experiences and ideas.  An NRCS agent spoke about "flying-on" cover crops (helicopter use results in poor establishment, planes work better) and people spoke about how they were incorporating (or wanted to incorporate) cover crops into their crop rotations.  After almost two hours of discussion (and a maple syrup prize giveaway from Phil's trees), we hopped in the truck, now caked in dirt, to head back to the Cities. I am looking forward to more field days in the future, to keep learning from people like Phil and Ryan, to continue to complicate reductionist or myopic research interests, and to keep working towards becoming a more thoughtful, engaged scientist.

The Grossman Lab Advocates for Agricultural Research on Capitol Hill: Lobbying Demystified

Publication date: 
March 31, 2016

Author: Sharon Perrone

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to ask Congress for $700 million—and say it with a straight face?

Over my spring break, I traveled to Washington, D.C. and did just that.  Thanks to the Agronomy, Crop, and Soil Science Societies of America (the Tri-Societies), I was awarded the opportunity to participate in a workshop on Congressional advocacy followed by a full day of lobbying, an event called “Congressional Visits Day,” or CVD.  In the nation’s balmy capital, I joined about two dozen students and 40 ag professionals, including academics, organizational leaders, industry representatives, and certified crop advisors to learn how to advocate for our research.

Congressional Visits DayPhoto from:

Amidst the brightly budding cherry blossoms, we spent the first day learning about the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI, for which we’d be asking for Federal support.  Established by the 2008 Farm Bill, AFRI is the nation’s peer-reviewed competitive grants program for agricultural science (the ag equivalent of an NIH grant).  While last year’s budget was a “meager” $350 million, the President requested $700 million in funding, the fully authorized amount by Congress in 2008, for the 2017 fiscal year.  After the President makes his request, every U.S. Senator and Representative must send a budget request letter to the Appropriations Committee.  After about 6 months of deliberation, the Committee will submit their budget for a vote to fund the next year of government in September.  Our goal was to make sure AFRI was included in those request letters at the fully authorized amount.

The following day, the Tri-Societies sent 17 teams to Capitol Hill to bring our request to 121 Congressional offices (i.e., Senators and Representatives).  My team handled six offices representing South Dakota and Minnesota.  I was accompanied by Paul Fixen, current president of ASA; Thom Weir, Vice Chair of the International Certified Crop Advisor program; and David Clay, soil science professor at South Dakota State University.  Appropriations letters were due that very week, and the Hill was full of folks from every interest and discipline requesting last-minute Appropriations support, like ourselves.  The energy was palpable!

Although I knew what to expect (I’d participated in a few of these types of meetings at my previous job in D.C.), I was nervous!  As the only Minnesota constituent, I was tasked to lead the four Minnesota meetings that we attended.  But our tactical team played our hand well, and I was accompanied by experts: I spoke about the broad overall importance and implications of agricultural research, and the direct impact AFRI has at the U of M, which receives AFRI grant money; David spoke more specifically of the types of problems that AFRI is helping solve; Thom translated the research to boots-on-the-ground outreach; and Paul spoke about missed opportunities for innovation and global impacts.

Congressional Visits Day

From left to right: Rebekah Solem of Rep. Collin Peterson’s office, Sharon Perrone, Thom Weir, and Paul Fixen.

Our team was lucky to visit states where agricultural is a critical industry, so our Senators and Representatives were very supportive.  One office had already submitted their request in our favor!  Overall, the whole democratic process was demystified.  While I thought the issues important to me might be brushed aside, I learned that my legislators were very interested to hear from me and asked me detailed questions about my concerns and thoughts for solutions.  I was asked if I might be a resource for future questions on agricultural issues.  I have gained confidence in my ability to communicate the critical need for my work, and I won’t be nervous to do it again in the future.

The main takeaway from my experience is this: Congress wants to hear from YOU, the constituent.  It is their job to represent you.  If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C. (or even your state legislature!), you can easily send an email or pick up the phone to voice the issues that are important to you.  Remember, you are your own best advocate.  No one can speak to your issues and expertise the way you can.  Too often we assume that someone else is already speaking on our behalf.  What better way to know your voice is being heard than to speak?

How to deal with surplus inspiration: Soil Organic Matter Brunch **nerd alert**

Publication date: 
January 22, 2016

Tri-societies conference

Author: Daniel Raskin

For three days back in November, members of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), Agronomy Society of America (ASA) and the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) descended upon Minneapolis for their annual tri-society conference. Outside, it was a rainy, inclement three days; but inside the Minneapolis Convention Center--which was maintained at a constant, comfortable 68 degrees supplemented with a soul-killing florescent-light-style corporate neutrality—we were all super-jazzed: Even though the coffee wasn’t free, none of us had to travel further than 5 miles to attend three days of seminars and presentations on the most recent developments in soil science and agroecology. It was a pretty sweet deal. 

We saw talks about plant uptake of dissolved organic nitrogen, novel methods of measuring rhizosphere microbial community composition in situ, spectral imaging of soil organic matter particles, and the challenges of weed management in organic no-till.

As graduate students, it can seem like our learning and reading habits can move out-of-step with our research practice. Exposure to new research and theories excite and challenge us, while our projects still need completing. We decided to harness our collective, post-conference excitement to bring our research and our theories closer together. At least, this is what we told ourselves; mostly, we just wanted to talk about what we had learned!

SOM model

The best science is illegible: The "microbial efficiency--matrix stabilization framework", a plant-microbe N competition model, and other sketches.

So, one Friday this January, before the start of the spring 2016 semester, we settled down at Peyton’s house with bagels, coffee, scrap paper and markers. We set out to create a rough model of carbon and nitrogen cycling—focusing especially on the ever-elusive labile organic matter pools—that is specific to the agroecosystems that the Grossman lab studies. The idea was to pool our data, ideas and experience to create an empirically valid framework that could help us develop future hypotheses. We wanted to this model to reflect our ever-developing conceptions of key soil processes. This gave us an opportunity to process what we learned at the conference.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t complete a working model of C:N cycling in organic agricultural soils in the upper Midwest. But we did share cool new theories with each other, riff on residue decomposition, and ask lots and lots of questions. Consensus was reached about one thing: we wanted to continue this process of collaborative, exploratory thinking. It helped us clarify our understandings of important processes, identify important unknowns, and confirm what excites us about our field.

We'll be sure to give you an update when we complete our sure-to-be groundbreaking model... keep tabs on our work!"

The Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Competition

Publication date: 
December 16, 2015

Author: Elayna Shapiro

This September I had the opportunity to apply for the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Competition. The competition was open to all sophomores at varying colleges. The challenge was to propose a solution to a global food problem by creating a 1 minute video and writing an essay. Out of all the applicants, 10 are chosen to participate in a year long program, including travel experience and a summer internship at Land O’Lakes.

For my proposal, I created a video proposing the potential of legumes to improve soil fertility and provide economic benefits by decreasing a farmer’s dependency on conventional fertilizer. I put together a video highlighting my experience studying legumes as cover crops. I included pictures of my research and my work in community gardens.

Even though I was not chosen to participate in the internship program, applying for this position provided me with experience in using my research to tell a story. When friends or relatives inquire about my research, I am able to provide a general explanation of my research as well as the interest and purpose in studying agroecology. Applying my research to global problems helped me better articulate the purpose of my research to others.

Funding for FEASt: New interdisciplinary graduate group

Publication date: 
June 3, 2015

Author: Daniel Raskin

FEAStWhile I can’t speak for *everybody*, I’ve noticed that many students studying agroecology at the University of Minnesota are drawn to the field out of a sense that food and agriculture matter in our lives and society. A lot of us wonder about the effects our research has on the policies that influence agriculture. Does our work shape agricultural policy? Does policy contribute to healthier ecosystems, better food, better society? If not, what needs to change?

To explore some of our broader questions about agriculture and society, a group of graduate students in the Applied Plant Sciences program (with heavy representation from the Grossman lab) got together. We developed a proposal for an interdisciplinary graduate group that examines the intersection of scientific research and food and agricultural policy.

The good news: we got funding! The Food, Environmental and Agricultural Studies (FEASt) group will meet throughout the year starting later this summer. It is open to anybody in a natural science discipline with a curiosity about how scientific research is used in agricultural policy, and how policy affects agriculture and food production. We’ve received widespread interest from students and faculty all across the University, and can’t wait to get started. The bad news? Well, we can start with climate change…

Hopefully, this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration can equip us to better address these “grand challenges” as researchers and citizens.

Happy 1st Anniversary to US!!!

Publication date: 
June 2, 2015

Author: JiJY - Thanwalee Sooksa-nguan

Grossman Lab @UMN 1st anniversary

In mid-May 2014, Julie had moved from Soil Science Department, NCSU to Horticulture Department at University of Minnesota. Peyton and I (JiJY) decided to move here with her and that’s how the Grossman Lab @ UMN formed.

Our beloved former Grossman Lab members at NCSU helped us pack some lab supplies and put in Julie’s Eurovan. I got a U-HAUL trailer to move thousands of stock Rhizobia cultures on dry ice. Peyton moved my mattress for me, thank you :) Three of us took separate road trips up north and re-gathered here again here at University of Minnesota on June 2nd, 2014.

Packing for the big move

We cleared up the lab space on the 2nd floor with several dump carts, cleaned it and designated the space as our “Clean lab”. Peyton was very dedicated to this task.


After the Clean lab was somewhat established, we’ve moved on to clear out spaces on the 4th floor, called it a “Dirty lab” (sorry, no pictures) and the cage in the greenhouse building.

Cleaning the new home

So many things happened in our lab within a year, more grad-students and undergrads, more projects and more FUN!!

Forever Green grads get noticed

Publication date: 
March 20, 2015

Author: Michelle Dobbratz

 samplingHere at the Grossman Lab, much of our research is focused on understanding soil health in cover cropping, double cropping, and living mulch systems. That makes for a natural partnership with the Forever Green Initiative, a group of Minnesota researchers studying ways to increase the amount of time soil is covered by living green material. If you want to learn more about the research being conducted as part of the Forever Green Initiative, check out this feature by Brian DeVore. Also, take a look at the profiles of Grossman Lab graduate researchers Michelle Dobbratz, Peyton Ginakes, Dan Raskin, and their Forever Green colleagues.

Better composting at the University of Minnesota

Publication date: 
February 27, 2015

Author: Michelle Dobbratz

Worst practice

These bins are located in a building that offers composting, but you’d never know it by this confusing set-up!

Have you ever seen something in your community that bothers you, but you weren’t sure what to do about it? That’s how I feel about the state of the composting system at the University of Minnesota. It really troubles me to watch valuable organic material, like food and compostable utensils, get turned into pollution every day. Although we have made progress in developing our composting system, it’s time to take the next steps so we can not only recycle organic material but also save money in the process.

Since the university started composting in 2007, quite a few people have stepped up to do their part. For example, the University Dining Services captures most organic waste in its jurisdiction, the Bell Museum hosts zero-waste events, and many areas on campus have invested in compostable packaging and single-use items. However, there’s still room to recover an additional 1,200 tons of organic material. In case you have a hard time visualizing 1,200 tons, it’s equivalent to the combined weight of the roughly 16,000 seniors and freshman at the U of M-Twin Cities.  We are missing the opportunity to recover fertile compost for gardeners and producers, and wasting money in the process. It costs the university four times as much to dispose of unsorted waste through incineration than it does to recycle organic material through composting.

Best practice

This is the best practice- all forms of disposal are available, signs are clear and visual, and bins are color coded. We need more of this!

With just a few simple steps, we can recover more of our compost to conserve the environment. From walking around campus, it’s clear that we need more compost bins and better signs where we do have bins. Very few buildings on campus have composting, and those that do often only have it in one place. Signs are confusing, contradictory, and hard to read for the tens of thousands of people on campus every day who are in a hurry. Best practices dictate that every trash point have access to all forms of recycling, that the receptacles are color-coded, and that visual signs are placed to help people sort in a hurry.

Similarly, we need to increase awareness of how easy it is to host a zero-waste event. If you are hosting an event that will serve 50 meals or more, you can fill out a short form a week beforehand to have Facilities Management collect all your waste and compost it. You do need to purchase compostable plates and utensils, but they are fairly inexpensive.

Grand prize

Thanks to my colleagues in the Grossman Lab and APS program for being so supportive! Special thanks to JiJY for helping me with my slide design.

I presented my idea to a panel of judges as part the Operational Excellence Open Innovation Showcase, and was awarded the grand prize for having the most feasible, impactful idea. Shortly afterward, Minnesota Student Association passed a position statement supporting my idea. There are already a number of staff and student groups working on this, and I am excited to see how things progress going forward. At a large institution like this, change can be slow, but by getting tapped into the community of individuals dedicating their time to this important issue, I am optimistic for the future.