The Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D. Community-Based Research Award is a $5,000 prize presented annually to a regular faculty member who has completed at least one research project that addresses a need within South Bend or the surrounding area.
For decades farmers have put nutrient rich fertilizers on their crops to help maximize crop yields and profits. But nutrients that crops or soil do not absorb eventually run off into surrounding streams and rivers where they can cause serious problems. Nutrients like nitrogen can change the character of water, even altering its biology so that it harms freshwater ecology and ultimately becomes undrinkable.
When biologist Jennifer Tank began to research the problems of nutrient run-off in nearby Kosciusko County, she focused on the streams and rivers it affected. She soon realized that the problems were larger than streams and rivers, and that they would require her to expand the scope of her research well beyond their banks. As Tank puts it, “I needed to get out of the streams and rivers and talk with farmers, but farmers didn’t want to hear from a biologist about what their fertilizers were doing to water.”
Tank understood the farmers’ skepticism and even empathized with them. “Agriculture feeds the world and farmers need to make a living,” she says. “I couldn’t go to them with solutions that asked them to sacrifice crop yields and profits.”
She realized that if the insights she was garnering in her research were to prove practically useful, she would need to gain the trust of Kosciusko County farmers and come up with solutions that were good for both crops and water. She would need to do both science and politics, biology and relationship building.
In Indiana’s neighboring states, soil and conservation efforts have worked through state legislation to regulate farming in ways that have proven harmful to agriculture and created resentment between farmers, conservationists, and legislators. Tank was searching for social and scientific solutions that would lead to happier results for all parties, but she had to work overcome the obstacles of distrust and miscommunication.
After many careful conversations with farmers and conservationists, Tank began to see herself less as a scientist offering solutions and more as a partner working on a common set of problems. The farmers she became acquainted with actually wanted to take good care of their land and not harm water, but they also wanted to be involved in developing a good solution that satisfied everyone. They did not want to be told what to do and have their own wisdom and experience with land use disregarded.
In fact, the wisdom and experience of Kosciusko County farmers made them excellent scientific partners. “Farmers are naturally experimentalists,” explains Tank. “Many of them have spent years analyzing data and results and trying to come up with better ways to do things.”
One of the methods that farmers have long used to protect land in the offseason—when ground would normally be bare—proved extremely valuable to Tank’s work. During the winter and spring, farmers often plant what are called cover crops, or plants used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity.
Tank found that Kosciusko County farmers were using cover crops on a very low percentage of the land surrounding the Shatto Ditch watershed, where she was working. If they increased that percentage, though, they might keep more nutrients in the soil, instead of having them run off into streams and rivers where they do not benefit crops and harm water supplies instead.
Cover crops are currently used on less than 10% of land that can be used for crops, and that is considered high compared to the national average. Kosciusko County farmers around the Shatto Ditch are now growing winter cover crops on about 70% of their arable acreage, a rate that promises to reduce drastically the amount of nutrient run-off in the area and increase just as drastically the nutrient-richness of the soil, which will lead to higher crop yields.