By RACHAL PINKERTON
YAKIMA — Behind every farmer is a team. That team includes family, friends, crop advisers and a host of other support members. One of those support members is a soil scientist.
Leslie Michel is a soil scientist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Her job is to work with farmers to help them improve their soil health.
“The goal is to improve soil health to help reduce long-term risk,” Michel said. “I do that mostly through cover crop practices. That is historically what I worked on.”
There are four main principles for soil health: increase the amount of time the soil is covered; increase the number of living roots in the soil; grow a diverse number of crops; and minimize disturbance to the soil. Some people, including Michel, like to incorporate livestock as well.
“Essentially my job is to help farmers figure out how to incorporate those principles into their operations, hopefully with economics in mind,” Michel said. “We like this to be economic. Sometimes that is really hard in the short term.”
In addition to working with farmers, Michel also works with conservation districts, Washington State University, non-profits and, occasionally, with the Department of Ecology. Her job is to build partnerships where conversations about soil health can be held. She also helps farmers get funding, resources and the information they need in the area of soil health.
In a previous job with a conservation district, Michel managed large cover crop trials in dry land wheat.
“We were looking to see if cover crops were a feasible option,” Michel said. “People learned a lot through this study. They are continuing to use cover crops in dryland wheat. But it doesn’t look like what we studied a few years ago.”
While Michel specializes in cover crops, other soil scientists specialize in other areas.
“There’s all spectrums of soil scientists,” Michel said.
Michel spends little time in the lab analyzing the soil itself. Instead, she concentrates on working with farmers.
“They’ll send off their soil samples,” Michel said. “I don’t even provide lab recommendations. They have a certified crop adviser for that.”
However, she does carry her favorite shovel with her when she goes out to a field.
“My favorite tool is a sharpshooter shovel,” Michel said. “It’s eight inches wide and is 12 to 18 inches long. It is really effective for digging deeper in the soil and taking a look at the soil. It is my all-time favorite.”
Other tools she uses are sampling probes and soil augers that allow her to pull soil cores. When asked if she tastes the soil, she said that sometimes it makes sense to do so.
“If it tastes glassy, it means it’s volcanic,” Michel said. “It has silica in it from volcanic eruptions. It shatters in the teeth. You can tell that versus sand.”
The makeup of the soil is important because it can affect how well it accepts water.
“A lot of soils, especially in the Basin, have a lot of ash,” Michel said. “It has the volcanic influence because of Mount St. Helens. Ash has a tendency to be hydrophobic. Water doesn’t go in right away. If soil is hot and dry, it is because of ash in the soil.”
Soils that have had severe fires on them can also be hydrophobic.
“I’ve done a lot of post-fire work,” Michel said. “It is one of the things we look for. We would take little bottles of water and would test the soil to see how hydrophobic it was. We could see how severe the fire was that went through there.”
When soil is hydrophobic after a fire, the badly burned areas are prone to erosion and mudslides.
“It takes longer for vegetation to come back,” Michel said. “That’s why as scientists, we go out and do rapid assessments right away. That way we know where we need to reseed and where to put mulch down. It is really, really important.”
Michel got her start in soils while growing up on her father’s farm in the Quincy Valley. She remembers playing in the soil and looking at the various layers. It was these experiences that motivated her to get an undergraduate degree in soil science. “I have a deep passion for agriculture,” Michel said. “I think there’s something really fundamental to who we are as humans. We’re so tied to the soil in so many different ways.”
While studying for her undergraduate degree at Oregon State University, Michel took classes such as soil biology, soil chemistry and soil physics, in addition to agronomics.
“Soil physics is the study of how water moves through soil and how clay particles and organic matter interact in the soil,” Michel said. “It was my favorite class.”
During her college years, she was able to do soil judging and participate in a national competition in Virginia.
Currently, Michel is working on her master’s degree. Her thesis is on using cover crops in dryland wheat fields and is based on large-scale farm trials.
One of the things Michel wishes people understood about soil health is that it takes time.
“It takes a long time to quantify results,” Michel said. “You may be able to see some results pretty quickly, especially under irrigation. For long-term results, it takes time.”
When money is at stake, investing in something that won’t bring immediate results is hard to want to do.
“We think of soils as a renewable resource,” Michel said. “At the rate we are depleting them, they are not. We have to actively manage them in a way to feed our crops. We have to start setting aside these notions that soils are just a medium and start think of them as an ecosystem that can actually provide our crops the nutrients they need. I am a firm believer in growing your soil health and using cover crops and diverse rotations to improve soil health.”
Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.