Unearthing Secrets Locked Deep Inside Each Fistful of Soil

To scientists at the National Soil Tilth Lab in Ames, Iowa, it’s not just dirt they are probing — it’s the planet’s sustaining surface

Jerry Hatfield, director of the National Soil Tilth Laboratory, located on the campus of the Iowa State University in Ames, still likes to conduct research that is literally "in the field." His territory is the fertile countryside of the upper Midwest. Hatfield makes regular forays down back roads to survey ongoing studies, including one project that monitors the amount of polluting fertilizers leaching into groundwater from acres of corn and soybeans.

But his lab, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, actually takes a global approach to the study of soil. The lab, opened in 1989 to investigate soil quality, or "tilth," is a place where scientists regard soil as an ecological system — a system that includes humans. The goal is to help keep humanity fed, as more of us try to subsist on ever less arable land.

With that mandate in mind, 21 scientists and 6 research associates, from an array of disciplines, are studying everything from soil's underpinning of nutrient structure, to the crucial role of earthworms (the best litle cultivators around), to the billions of microbes that inhabit every teaspoon of dirt. Outwitting weeds is a major concern as well.

With tools such as lasers, climate-controlled research chambers and, of course, computers — including laptops in the field — Hatfield and his colleagues are bringing soil science into the next century.

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