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!"