Monday, December 3, 2012

Superheroes in training: Envisioning a new future for agriculture

By Melissa L. Lamberton, research assistant at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction to the Superheroes in Training series

Graduate students are the unsung heroes of sustainability. As universities publish new research about innovative practices to create healthier and more resilient agricultural systems, grad students often toil behind the scenes, sitting at a lab bench, spending long days in the field, crunching numbers and writing reports. Although you won’t find them fighting crime in red capes or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, I call these students superheroes—people who work against the odds to make a better world.

Stefen Gailans is a Superhero in Training
(photo courtesy of the Leopold Center)
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture tells the stories of some of these students in a new series of vignettes called “Superheroes in Training” on our Facebook page. I asked graduate students involved in research projects funded by the Leopold Center to talk about their work, their inspirations, and their visions of the future.

These students help the Leopold Center pursue its mission to identify and reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources. The Center funds research projects in ecology, marketing and policy as wide-ranging as developing local food systems, finding ways to protect waterways from pollution, and helping landowners include conservation practices in farm leases.

The interview below, with Ph.D. student Stefan Gailans, illustrates how the students we work with envision a future for agriculture that not only protects the environment, but also supports the livelihoods of farmers and invigorates rural communities. As Gailans says, more people making a living in rural areas means more people caring for the land. After all, that’s what “sustainability” means—sustaining ecosystems as well as people—and that’s why we think superheroes can be found in the research lab.

Superheroes in Training: Meet Stefan Gailans

The Leopold Center is proud to introduce Stefan Gailans, designer of alternative cropping systems. This interview is part of a series, "Superheroes in Training," that spotlights students who are involved with Leopold Center research projects and work to create a more sustainable world.

Stefan is a Ph.D. student in Crop Production & Physiology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Stefan in his natural habitat
(photo by ISU student Rosie Olander)
  • Where is the place you call home?
Now a full-time resident of Ames but originally from Mequon, Wisconsin (north of Milwaukee).
  • What is your research, and why is it important?
In a nutshell, my research lab investigates alternative crop production and alternative cropping systems—apart from corn and soybean these systems include crops like canola, wheat, and red clover. Expanding the suite of crops grown can potentially reduce the risk of pest outbreaks in our cropping systems in Iowa. Winter varieties of canola and wheat included in the alternative systems serve as cash grain crops as well as cover crops that aim to reduce soil erosion and leaching during the “off season.” Basically, maintaining a high level of agricultural productivity while being more environmentally benign.
  • What got you excited about studying this topic?
I got excited about this kind of research when I realized the intersection between agriculture and the environment many years ago. As one who cares for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and productive agriculture, I find this intersection is very important.
  • Describe a favorite moment or surprising lesson learned.
When studying or conducting agricultural research, one is subject to the time clock and whims of Mother Nature. And one cannot get too hung up or frustrated by this. Having set target dates for certain field operations (planting, sampling, harvesting, etc.) is unrealistic—these need to be more like moving targets for the goals to be attainable. As a technician once told me when I first started out, “That’s agriculture.”
  • What's your dream job?
My dream job would include opportunities to reach out and educate students, community members, and farmers alike as to this important intersection between agriculture and the environment. Communicating the importance of both agriculture and the environment is of key interest.
  • How do you spend your time when you're not out saving the world?
I spend a lot of time listening to music and going to see local music live with my friends. I’ve also recently gotten into science fiction literature, primarily the works of Isaac Asimov. I also enjoy fishing and, as per the seasons, very much enjoy hunting for waterfowl and pheasant.
  • If you could make one change to make the world more sustainable, what would it be?
I’ll draw a bit from my previous answer here. In some of his novels, Asimov portrays a world (not necessarily positively or negatively) where nearly all humans live in dense population centers with very few working the land with many machines to grow and produce food. I would much rather see the opposite of this. The more people in rural settings, the more people there are to care for agriculture and the environment.
  • Who is your favorite superhero (real or fictional) and why?
I always liked Batman because he didn’t have any super power conferred to him by virtue of being an alien or some random accident. Sure, Bruce Wayne has a lot of money and seemingly unlimited access to resources, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a human being who had to work really long and hard to achieve superhero status.

Melissa L. Lamberton is a research assistant at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She is interested in how poets, writers and artists can communicate about science to create a better future for people and the environment.

Read more Superhero in Training stories on the Leopold Center's Facebook page.

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