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Q&A with Abbey Wick

Soil health specialist knows how to connect with farmers.

Smile and shovel in hand, Abbey Wick traverses rural North Dakota trading her knowledge about soils and soil health with farmers who share expertise about their farms. This mutually beneficial partnership has helped make North Dakota a soil health leader.

“Our farmers are smart and innovative,” says the North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist. “It’s been exciting to see them try cover crops and conservation tillage systems in order to rejuvenate their farms.”  

There’s good reason for that. Over the past 25 years, rampant rainfall in North Dakota has fueled saline soils that hamstring crops from accessing water and nutrients. In North Dakota and Minnesota’s Red River Valley alone, saline soils affect 1 million acres for a $100 million adverse impact.

Saline soils helped spur the Soil Health and Land Management Initiative, a $2.1 million measure passed by the North Dakota legislature. It’s linked to the Soil Health and Agriculture Research Extension (SHARE) farm near Mooreton, North Dakota, that’s funded by the state’s corn, soybean, and wheat commodity groups. The farm provides research that fuels soil health café talks, winter workshops, and an annual soil health field day. Wick discusses her involvement and how that state’s soil health effort started.

SF: Did you ever think you would be working in soils?

AW: No, not in a million years. I grew up in the Cleveland suburbs. My mom used to recruit in the Ohio region for the University of  Denver. My undergraduate degrees were in geography there before I went to the University of Wyoming for a doctorate in soil science. While at Wyoming, I worked on mine reclamation. That study also took me to Virginia, Montana, and North Dakota, which is how I came to love this state.

SF: What does the soil health initiative do?  

AW: One of the things it did was create three positions in research and three positions in Extension, along with support staff, to look at soil health. This makes a powerful coalition to be able to do research and get the information out to the farmer through Extension. The projects are linked to the SHARE farm. We have worked on everything from salinity management and sodium-affected soils to no-till, other types of conservation tillage, and cover crops.

SF: How did you persuade farmers to think about soil health?   

AW: Soil health has always been around, but it wasn’t connecting with farmers. Farmers are more qualitative. They will take a shovel, sample soils from the fence row and then in the field, and see the difference. Scientists are more quantitative. We have to have numbers. So linking them together is the key to adoption of these practices.
The first year, I spent time talking with a lot of people in the industry. I knew a lot about soils but not much about farming. The farmers were positive, excited, and eager to teach me about farming. The partnerships and friendships I’ve formed with farmers have helped with the recommendations I make. Farmers have to see soil health practices work in their areas. The more they see them, the more they are willing to adopt them. I have also given a lot of café and farm shop talks.

SF: Why did soil health take off so quickly in North Dakota?

AW: It was a grassroots effort, with farmers leading the way. About 90% of North Dakota farmers are battling soil salinity. This gave it strong support from the agricultural community.

SF: What are good cover crops for beginners?

AW: Cereal rye and radishes. Radishes typically winterkill and the Roundup smokes cereal rye before cash crops emerge. Both are simple to use.

SF Bio

Name: Abbey Wick
Title: North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist
Background: The Ohio native assumed her current position in 2012. While a PhD student at the University of Wyoming and doing postdoctoral work at Virginia Tech, she also worked in mine reclamation. Similar techniques are used in reclaiming mines and repairing farmland, she says.

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