Saturday, 15 July 2006

Five Decades of Soil Organic Matter Study: The History of NCERA-59.

Deborah Allan, Univ of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, Douglas Archibald, Penn State Univ, University Park, PA 16802, Larry J. Cihacek, North Dakota State Univ, Fargo, ND 58105, Richard Dick, Ohio State Univ, Columbus, OH 43210, Rhae Drijber, Univ of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68583, Serita Frey, Univ Of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, William R. Horwath, Univ of California, Davis, CA 95616, Peter Motavalli, Univ of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, Daniel Olk, National Soil Tilth Lab, Ames, IA 50011, Charles Rice, Kansas State Univ, Manhattan, KS 66506, Sieglinde Snapp, Michigan State Univ, East Lansing, MI 48824, Alex Stone, Oregon State Univ, Corvallis, OR 97331, Ronald Turco, Purdue Univ, West Lafayette, IN 47906, Michelle Wander, Univ of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801, and Ray R. Weil, Univ of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

As a regional committee under the auspices of the North Central Regional Association (NCRA) of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, the North Central Education and Research Activity Committee (NCERA)-59 has enjoyed a long and productive history. In 1946, the Federal Research and Marketing Act set aside 25% of Experiment Station Hatch funds for regional research to be undertaken by regional research committees. In 1947, the North Central Regional Association was formed, and research committees in this region quickly coalesced. NCERA-59 had its origins in the research committee NC-17, initiated in 1952 to address questions about how organic matter and management practices could improve soil structure and productivity. Members included Champ Tanner (Wisconsin), Don Kirkham (Iowa), Frank Stevenson (Illinois), Herb Reuszer (Indiana), and Jim Mortenson (Ohio). Two lines of work emerged on the committee, one related to the chemical nature of organic matter and the other to soil and crop practices relating to soil structure. In 1962, the project was divided into NC-55 "Chemical and physical characteristics of soil organic matter" and NC-56 "Soil structure and plant growth." With the generous funding they received (60% of their annual salaries), members of NC-55 could conduct extensive research projects as well as host guest speakers at their meetings, like Malcolm Oades. When the renewal for NC-55 was submitted in 1967, it was turned down because the National Program had determined that projects related to societal problems like conservation or pollution should be given preference for funding over those oriented to basic research. Thus the committee was redesignated NCR-59 and research funds for committee members were no longer provided. Members who joined in the 60s and 70s included Jack Bremner (Iowa), George Wagner (Missouri), Bob Miller (Ohio), Gordon Chesters (Wisconsin), Ed Schmidt (Minnesota), John Moraghan (North Dakota), Ed Clapp (USDA-ARS), Morris Schnitzer (Canada), J.P. Martin (California) and Ron Malcolm (USGS). As important contributions on the chemical make up and function of soil organic matter were made in the 1960s by committee members like Stevenson and Schnitzer, the focus shifted from physical characteristics of organic matter to soil biochemistry and the analysis of humic substances. Ron Malcolm, who conducted ground breaking work on fulvic acids in water, became a founding member of the International Humic Substances Society in 1981. Throughout the 1980s, the committee served as a base of support for the IHSS. During that decade, the configuration of the committee shifted from soil biochemists and chemists such as Ron Malcolm, Frank Stevenson, Steve Boyd and Paul Bloom to microbiologists, including Robin Harris, Jean-Marc Bollag, Ron Turco, and Dianne Stott. Whether chemical or biological in slant, the committee's main focus remained on organic matter, with two of the foremost textbooks on soil organic matter of the time authored by two committee members, Frank Stevenson and Robert Tate III. In the 1990s, the committee added a focus on soil quality and sponsored a number of symposia and books on the subject, with strong leadership by John Doran (USDA-ARS). More recently, the focus has shifted again, back to an emphasis on chemical and physical fractionation of organic matter and its role in soil structure, as well as the application of organic matter research to agronomic and environmental concerns, such as nutrient cycling and use efficiency in cropping systems, carbon sequestration, and bioremediation. Committee members are again very active in a newly revitalized U.S. chapter of the International Humic Substances Society. Other contributions in recent years include: exposing thousands of interested public to new knowledge of soil organic matter function and practical management options, through a wide range of outreach materials, including a website on soil quality; writing chapters for and producing the book Soil Organic Matter in Sustainable Agriculture (Magdoff and Weil, 2004) and informing policy makers at a national and regional level. This decades long organized research effort among diverse state agricultural experiment stations and the USDA underscores the important role of organic matter in agronomic production systems and environmental quality now and in the future.

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