Environmental Studies

Summer Research 2019 Soil Testing

Research Project: Soil Health Indicators on Agricultural and Natural Lands

Ryan Rogers ’22, Environmental Studies
Matt Staver ’20, Environmental Studies
Laura Peterson, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Chemistry

Minimizing Environmental Impact

“We’re working with the Northeast Iowa Research Conservation and Development office, which is a nongovernmental group that receives grants to promote development opportunities in the area,” Peterson says. “The main goal of the project is to promote the use of regenerative agricultural techniques in the area. Our role at Luther is to document the changes in soil health that occur as producers adopt these techniques, which can enhance soil fertility and minimize the environmental impact of agriculture, overall contributing to a more sustainable form of agriculture both on the field and in surrounding ecosystems and communities.” 

Peterson and students Matt Staver and Ryan Rogers were contacted by the agency to see if they could help with the research by conducting soil health measurements. “Since this is the first year of the project, we’re working on establishing some baseline data,” Staver says. “As farmers continue with these techniques over the next few years, we hope to document if and how their soil health indicators have changed.” 

Conventional agricultural practices take a heavy toll on the environment. Tilling and mono-cropping make topsoil more susceptible to erosion, which also has impacts on soil fertility, water quality, and even flood frequency. Rogers says, “Regenerative practices help to keep the top soil where it should be, prevent flooding, and lessen fertilizer usage, which keeps it out of rivers and oceans. We hope to show farmers that what they’re doing is helping their fields and the environment as well.”

Gathering Data through Field Tests

The student researchers and Professor Peterson gather their data through a combination of field and lab tests. Peterson says, “There are some simple things we can do right there in the field. We can check the depth of the topsoil, count earthworms in a cubic foot of soil, look at water infiltration, and collect some samples. In the lab we can run tests to measure soil density, carbon, and aggregate stability, all of which give us an indication of how resistant the soil is to erosion.”

If the group feels more in-depth testing is needed, they sometimes send samples to outside labs. Rogers says, “We ask them to do the more complicated testing than what we’re capable of. Overall, we feel the testing we do at Luther shows us the density and aggregation levels in the soil, which are some of the best indicators of a healthy system.” 

Regenerative Practices Already Showing Improvement

All parties involved want to help large-scale agriculture become more sustainable. “Farmers are interested in having us evaluate their soil health,” Rogers says. “Their hope is that regenerative soil processes will help them produce better crops. They get the information provided to them free of charge and we get to conduct the tests and evaluate the data, so it’s a win-win.”

The regenerative practices are already showing good results. “We’re seeing that some of the farms that have implemented regenerative practices are approaching the values for soil health indicators that we observe in native perennial systems, like the restored prairies and forests on Luther’s campus. That's what we want to see and it seems to be working.”

The group hopes to do more testing and analysis in the next three years to further track the progress.


Why Do Summer Research? 

“It’s really cool to get hands-on experience where you’re figuring things out right alongside a professor. That’s been very exciting for me.”

—Ryan  Rogers

“Doing real science was one of the aspects that attracted me to Luther, since I knew undergraduate research was a possibility here. It’s helped me solidify that I want to continue down the science path and possibly do more research in the future.”

—Matt Staver

“It’s a great way for students to understand knowledge and science in a way that’s different from learning from a textbook. It offers many more opportunities to discover and explore.” 

—Professor Laura Peterson