From the ground up

From the ground up

Philanthropy empowers soil research – and the next generation of farmers and scientists

Just beneath our feet lies a teeming, complex ecosystem full of life few understand. It’s vitally important to feeding a growing global population yet it’s one of our most endangered resources.

Soil is Chuck Rice’s passion. Rice, university distinguished professor of agronomy and soil microbiology at Kansas State University, is a world-renowned expert on soil microbiology. Rice has spent his career researching this little-known ecosystem and educating farmers and others on the importance of a healthy soil microbiome.

Soil contains thousands of species, from the visible insects and worms to microbes such as fungi and bacteria. Soil microbes are the foundation of life on Earth. They are essential for food production, water purification, greenhouse gas reduction and breaking down organic waste. A prime reason for the death of soil microbes and soil loss is the traditional practice of plowing fields. Churning the land disrupts the ecosystem and makes the soil susceptible to wind and water erosion and loss of life-giving nutrients.

K-State takes the lead

K-State is at the forefront of understanding and teaching about the importance of soil and its role in the global food system, and Rice and his research are a major component of that success. About 10 graduate and undergraduate students work in his lab, researching soil microbiology and climate change and the relationship between the two. Much of this work is supported by private philanthropy. Currently, Rice holds the Mary L. Vanier University Professorship.

“With university cutbacks due to declining state funding, Mary’s gift supports running my lab and expanded opportunities for my students,” Rice said. “It has allowed me to cover the expense of an extra trip or two for myself and my students to make new connections with scientists around the world. It helps support the graduate students and covers extra, unforeseen expenses.”

The professorship is doing exactly what Mary Vanier had hoped — supporting exceptional faculty who teach and mentor remarkable students.

“I believe great faculty attract great students,” Vanier said. “It is important K-State recruit outstanding faculty to provide the best student experience possible. With state support dropping, the university relies more heavily on private philanthropy to fill the gaps. Now, more than ever, it’s important for K-State alumni and supporters to provide necessary resources to recruit and retain outstanding faculty.”

Improving processes for Kansas farms

One of Rice’s former students is helping share the importance of soil health with fellow farmers.

Justin Knopf, 2000 agronomy graduate, farms in Gypsum, Kansas, southeast of Salina. Knopf, along with his brother and father, farms 4,500 acres using a no-till management system, which allows a farmer to plant crops and control weeds without turning the soil. Knopf learned about no-till and the importance of soil health while at K-State.

“As I began to learn about the science of soils — how water enters and is stored in soil, how important structure and organic matter is and how that structure is disrupted by tillage — that was foundational knowledge,” Knopf said. “Dr. Rice really imparted to me the importance of a healthy biological system in our soil. Knowledge gained at K-State was the start of the transition on our farm.”

Since switching to no-till more than 20 years ago, soil at the Knopf farm is far more protected from erosion, more biologically active and increasingly resilient at producing good harvests despite more extreme weather. Justin and his family continue to learn new ways to improve the health of their fields. While Justin is quick to point out much of what he learns comes from fellow farmers, the Knopfs also conduct on-farm research themselves and offer field space for K-State faculty and extension agents to conduct research. The Knopf farm hosts K-State field days and farm tours, and Justin shares information from their farm trials with other farmers.

Making a global impact

The message of the Knopfs’ success with no-till agriculture and their collaboration with K-State on research and extension has gone global, as Justin is the subject of a book and documentary, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” by Miriam Horn.

Chuck Rice has also contributed to K-State’s prestige as a leader in global food systems research, education and outreach. He currently serves on the National Academies Board on Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Air Quality Task Force. He is chair of the Commission on Soils, Food Security and Public Health of the International Union of Soil Sciences and serves or has served on numerous national and international agronomy, soil science and research boards. In 2007, he was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But it’s how he and his family give back to K-State that is making a lasting difference.

Chuck and his wife, Sue, created the Chuck and Sue Rice International Agronomy Lecture series, which brings prominent scholars from around the world to engage with K-State students and faculty on international aspects of agriculture and the environment. When Rice receives an honorarium, instead of using it for himself, he gives it to the international lecture series fund. His daughter, Sarah McGinnity, concerned about climate change, also created a fund supporting his graduate students.

As Kansas’ land-grant university, K-State has an obligation to conduct research and disseminate knowledge across the state. State support has declined drastically in the past few decades, making private support — through financial investments like those of Mary Vanier and in-kind donations such as the Knopfs hosting research on their land — all the more vital. Without private gifts, K-State wouldn’t be able to conduct the research and outreach that benefits Kansas, the nation and the world.

“Chuck epitomizes the importance K-State plays in statewide agriculture, worldwide agriculture and climate change,” Vanier said. “This reflects positively on our important land-grant mission. I’m very proud of Chuck and of all our distinguished faculty for providing K-State students with a first-rate educational experience.”

“As a student, I’d walk through the greenhouse, inspired by the world-class research at K-State,” Knopf said. “Today, when we have different groups and organizations visit our farm, it’s such a pleasure to say, ‘Here’s the email for one of the world’s leading scientists on this topic and he’s just down the road. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to this scientist at my local land-grant university.”

By Marisa Larson, KSU Foundation

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