At 5:00 am on a Wednesday morning the sun has yet to rise in the Pocomoke River State Forest, but our team is already up cooking breakfast and putting on our boots to prepare for a day of work in the field. It’s important for us to get an early start in an attempt to beat some of the Maryland summer heat, or to make up for lost hours due to yesterday’s afternoon thunderstorm. We load up our truck with tape measures, augers, fertilizer, and of course our plants, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and saltmeadow corgdrass (Spartina patens). The purpose of this field excursion is to plant several salt tolerant crop species in order to see how they fare in the increasingly inundated and brackish farm fields of the eastern shore of Maryland, one of the regions most vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise in the entire country.
This summer I have been lucky enough to join the AgroEco Lab’s saltwater intrusion team and come along on multiple field excursions, where I have gotten to experience field work first hand and get a sense of what a typical day in the field looks like. Some may assume that scientists are only there to observe, and simply stand by making tick marks on their clipboards while others do the dirty work...but this couldn’t be further from the truth! One important thing I have learned this summer is that agroecologists are not afraid to get their hands dirty, and field work involves a great deal of manual labor, such a making soil “slushies” in order to install lysimeters, hammering probes 60 cm into the ground to get soil samples, and crawling up and down plots to plant our treatments.
During this planting excursion in particular I was thrown into the reality of field work: that it’s really hard! It involves long hours (sometimes dawn to dusk!), exposure to all kinds of weather, including sweltering heat and torrential downpours, strenuous labor, and worst of all, ticks! While some may know the eastern shore of Maryland for its picturesque landscapes of tall grasses blowing in the breeze against the backdrop of the Chesapeake Bay, or perhaps its delicious crab dinners, our field trips are certainly no vacation!
But sometimes these field excursions don’t seem like work at all, and the lines between work and leisure are more blurred. For instance, when I’m standing out on a wooden dock overlooking the bay, and behind me is a small cottage and willow tree that belong to a historic property, just down a dirt road from one of our field sites. Or when I get back from a long day in the field only to enjoy a lively make-your-own taco night with the rest of team, an evening fueled with laughter, stories, and an appreciation for good food. For all the things that make field work hard, there are plenty more that make it an incredible experience overall. As agroecologists we are lucky enough to get to go to so many extraordinary places and spend time outdoors, as well as get to bond with our fellow researchers, as a part of our job, which is a luxury not everyone has. I cannot wait to see all the places agroecology research will take me in the future!
- By Louisa Kimmell
Anderson, Eric K., et al. “Determining Effects of Sodicity and Salinity on Switchgrass and Prairie Cordgrass Germination and Plant Growth.” Industrial Crops and Products, vol. 64, Feb. 2015, pp. 79–87., doi:10.1016/j.indcrop.2014.11.016.
Titus, JG, and C Richman. “Maps of Lands Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise: Modeled Elevations along the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.” Climate Research, vol. 18, 2 Nov. 2001, pp. 205–228., doi:10.3354/cr018205.
If you have been around me in the lab for the last month, you might have caught me a few times watching a soccer game while scraping away soil samples. When there is a huge bin full of samples to scrape, you need something to pass the time. As a huge soccer fan, the World Cup brings me excitement every four years when it rolls around. Some of the countries I closely followed in this World Cup have players with great individual skill but have mostly gotten their nation to advance solely on team chemistry. So far, this observation has paralleled my experience in the Agroecology lab this summer.
I am working individually most days on Elizabeth de la Reguera’s project about how saltwater intrusion affects the storage of carbon in soil on agricultural fields. In this project, different soil aggregates are separated by sieving them from large to small particle size, until eventually silt and clay is left in the end. After the aggregates are dried in an oven, I weigh them and take them back to scrape in coin envelopes (shown in the picture). The amount of carbon is then tested after the samples are in envelopes. This work is important in observing how outside forces like saltwater intrusion can greatly affect aggregate stability . This research will hopefully help farmers take saltwater intrusion into account and seek solutions, such as establishing barriers to mitigate intrusion rate or adjusting crops to salt-tolerant species .
With the many individual projects the lab has, our “team chemistry” is still displayed. On a small scale, Elizabeth and I communicate well to ensure that her project is running smoothly. This can include relaying turkey tins to her car from the drying oven, needing more samples in the lab, or teaching me something new. In the field a couple weeks ago, I was part of a team of six when it came to installing lysimeters and soil sampling. We knocked out two fields in one day and got to go home a day early! On a large scale, the goal of our lab is to make agriculture more sustainable through research. We all know we aren’t making as much money as Messi or Ronaldo, but together we are definitely making an impact in the environmental and agricultural world. Even with the World Cup coming to an end soon, I still have a lot of great experiences left in the lab this summer.
-By Drew Mandich
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (1996). Soil Quality Indicators: Aggregate
Stability. Retrieved from
Duan, Y. (2016). Saltwater intrusion and agriculture: a comparative study between the
Netherlands and China. TRITA-LWR Degree Project 2016:20.