Agroecology in Southern IL: Week Three Notes from the Field

This guest post is from Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies major Allison Breeding, who was awarded a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) fellowship this summer at Southern IL University. This is the third installment of weekly blogs this summer from Allison on the work she is doing for her research fellowship.

Highlights from this past week of June 10 through 16 included new field exercises, soil education, fun get-togethers with REU students and faculty, and local farm tours. Most notably, this past week also marked the start of my independent summer research project, which I was thrilled to get underway!

On Monday the 10th, our REU group joined Professor Karl Williard of the Forestry Department at 8am to quantify stream discharge rates. We conducted our tests on Little Grassy Creek, which is located southeast of Carbondale and is a primary tributary of Crab Orchard Lake and the Big Muddy River. Further south from our testing site was Little Grassy Lake, a ~1,200-acre reservoir created in the late 30s/early 40s when the Little Grassy Creek Dam was built.

Little Grassy Creek, IL (photo: coose)

Little Grassy Creek, IL (photo: coose)

So we all waded into Little Grassy Creek (up to our hips in some places) around 9:30am and split up into two groups to conduct measurements. We first used the “Floating Object Method” to crudely estimate the stream discharge rate — an REU student’s orange being the “object” of choice. We did this by obtaining the mean stream width and depth to determine our cross-sectional area (A). We then multiplied A by the mean velocity (which we calculated by floating the orange downstream 50 feet and timing its progress, x3) to determine the discharge rate.

We also used the “Current-Meter Method,” which involves dividing a cross-section of stream, from bank to bank, into equal-width subsections (up to 20 typically) and recording the depth and velocity of each subsection to ultimately determine the discharge rate. Since the creek wasn’t too large or deep, we measured the mean velocity of each subsection at 0.6 depth, rather than using the two-point method of measuring at 0.2 and 0.8 depths below the surface. When all the data was compared and calculations complete, my group estimated that our section of Little Grassy Creek had a stream discharge rate of 53.18 cubic meters per second.

For our Ecology Interact (EI) session at 1pm, we covered last week’s assigned readings: “The Flood Pulse Concept in River-Floodplain Systems” by Wolfgang J. Junk, et al., and “The Natural Flow Regime: A Paradigm for River Conservation and Restoration” by N. LeRoy Poff, et al. We also engaged in an open discussion about agricultural impacts on natural flow regimes and hydrological systems.

From 2:30-4pm, we had a seminar and Q&A on soil communities, led by Elizabeth Bach, a PhD candidate from Iowa State University and a former SIUC REU student. I was particularly fascinated with her points and explanations on soil aggregates (which I was previously unfamiliar with), and her explanation of the relationships between aggregate types and different soil microbes. After 4pm, I collected and posted flyers for LOGIC’s June 15th Field Day around campus.

On Tuesday, we all met up around noon for our weekly group lunch with Ben Wodika. This week we ate outside the campus library, near the stone sculpture garden, and recapped Monday’s activities as well as outlined our upcoming priorities and events.

That evening, at about 5pm, we all visited the home of Drs. Sara Baer and Matt Whiles (both are SIU professors and REU mentors) for a dinner reception. Their beautiful home is located just outside of Carbondale on Spring Arbor Lake, and technically within the boundaries of the Trail of Tears State Forest. The entire home is enclosed by woodlands, and stone steps lead down from their back deck to the lake, where they have an idyllic spot for swimming and boating. The house was designed by a former SIU Zoology professor, and allegedly the house has stayed within the Life Sciences departments (and has never been handled by a realtor) since it was built. :)

Elizabeth Bach (from Monday’s seminar) was in attendance, as were other REU mentors and their graduate students/assistants. We all ate delicious Cuban food, swam in the lake, and chatted until about 10pm. The longer I’m here, the more I observe and am impressed by the camaraderie that exists within SIU’s Life Sciences faculty and personnel. The majority of professors and grad students I’ve met thus far are not only smart, they’re very active, humorous, loquacious, and all seem to be great friends. In my opinion, this has further enriched the interdisciplinary design of this REU ecology program, and made the group/mentor interactions incredibly enjoyable.

On Wednesday I kickstarted my independent research project–it was also my longest “workday” in Carbondale yet! Kyle (another REU) and I met Sara Baer and Ben Wodika in Sara’s lab at 8:30am to round up our gear and equipment for collecting soil. We drove out to the SIU ag fields shortly thereafter and split up into teams of two (Kyle needed different soil types and amounts than I did) to collect our samples.

PVC cores (A. Breeding)

PVC cores (A. Breeding)

Sara and I visited three different ag fields to collect samples: an ag field that’s used no tilling since the 1970s, a conventional till (annually alternated with no till) ag field, and a field that uses sustainable/organic farming practices. At each field we measured out a cross-section of ~60 meters, then collected six 5cmx5cm soil cores (spaced apart by 10 meters each) using PVC pipes. From around each core, we also collected seven smaller subsamples to form a soil composite for each core sample. Once we got into a rhythm, the process went more quickly–which was good, since it was the hottest day of the summer yet in Carbondale (up to 100 with humidity)! The breeze that day was a major blessing.

Weighing soil samples (A. Breeding)

Weighing soil samples (A. Breeding)

We returned to the lab with all my samples in the early afternoon. Before I could revel in completing my first independent field exercise, I realized I had a LOT of soil prepping still to do before I was done for the day! Fortunately, Ben and Mandy (one of the lab techs) helped me organize a lot of my lab equipment and assisted me through some initial steps, which saved me a lot of time.

Recording the weight of everything in my lab notebook as I went, I capped off the 18 PVC soil cores and placed them in sealed, moist mason jars–which went into the fridge. Then I portioned out approx. 20g of soil from each of the 16 composite samples into aluminum pans, and set these in the lab oven at 105oC. I portioned out an additional ~25g of soil from each composite and placed these subsamples into paper-lined funnels, which I then inserted into glass beakers and saturated with deionized water. I set these beakers in an airtight cooler to drain for 24hrs. I will ultimately be using these “wet” and “dry” composite subsamples to calculate the gravimetric water content, or moisture content, of the different soils I collected. Initially, I felt completely overwhelmed and uncertain as Sara talked me through all the lab steps, but once I’d run through them once or twice it became a lot of fun!

On Thursday I ran some errands in town and then went to the lab around 4:30 (when I wrapped up on Wednesday). I pulled out the 18, 24-hr drained soil subsamples from the cooler, weighed out approx. 15-20g of soil from each into aluminum pans, and placed them in the oven at 105oC.

On Friday I read some additional soil studies that Sara had suggested for me, went shopping for some items with another REU girl, and had a fairly low-key night at the dorm.

Farmers market (A. Breeding)

Farmers market (A. Breeding)

I was up bright and early on Saturday to help work the LOGIC stand at the Carbondale Community Farmers’ Market. Compared to two weeks ago, it was like a whole different market! This time it was sunny, hot, and bustling with vendors and customers. The Mayor of Carbondale came out for a ribbon-cutting after the market opened at 8:30 (to commemorate the market’s first season). A five-piece bluegrass band played tunes in the background as people perused herb seedlings, got cups of fresh coffee and hibiscus tea, bought handmade hot sauce and preserves, snacked on artisan pastries from a local bakery stand, and purchased bunch after bunch of local produce. A couple vendors even had local eggs, grass-fed beef and poultry for sale! LOGIC sold out of its “superfood” salad mix (romaine, kale, chard, beet greens, carrot greens, etc) in an hour and half, and the romaine heads, red/white/yellow onions, beets, herbs and rainbow chard sold quickly as well.

LOGIC market stand (A. Breeding)

LOGIC market stand (A. Breeding)

I left the market at around 11am to head back to the lab. Sara and Kyle were both there working, and Sara walked me through the next few soil steps for my experiment. First, I pulled the 18 drained composite subsamples, or 100% water holding content (WHC) subsamples, from Thursday out of the oven. I recorded their new weight and returned them to the oven. I also recorded the weight of the 18 composite subsamples that I initially put in the oven on Wednesday, to record the dry 100% WHC weight, and then deposited these into the soil waste bin.

Next, I portioned out approx. 60g of soil from each of the original 18 composite samples — for future testing of the 50% WHC — and put these new subsamples in the fridge for cold storage. Additionally, I weighed out approx. 20g from each of the original 18 composite samples, stored these subsamples in marked envelopes, and put the envelopes in an oven at 55oC . . . where they will remain for one week. These subsamples will be used to test for total carbon and total nitrogen in the near future.

I spent the rest of Saturday picking up a bike — yaay, a bike! I finally own a bike! an amazing women’s performance hybrid bike! — and hanging out with the other REUs. We all decided to drive out to Scratch Brewery for a picnic/potluck in the evening. Nine of us left the dorms around 7pm, stopped at Walmart to grab some snacks, and then arrived at Scratch. We laid claim to a picnic table on their serene outdoor patio, where we proceeded to feast on a tasty hodgepodge of our collective meal offerings: strawberries, pretzel crisps, chocolate teddy grahams, sharp cheddar, pickles, pineapple chunks, caramel corn…all accompanied by water and goblets of Scratch ale. The sun set shortly after 8pm, prompting the lighting of a bonfire in the patio fire pit. Several other customers wassailed at nearby tables and around the fire. It was a delightful summer evening.

A pasture at Lick Creek Beef Farm (A. Breeding)

A pasture at Lick Creek Beef Farm (A. Breeding)

This Sunday, we went on tours of two local farms. We first stopped at Frontwards Farm in Makanda, IL. Frontwards Farm is a sustainable farm and CSA that grows many varieties of vegetables, mushrooms, some fruits (strawberries, blueberries), and also raises broilers and egg-laying hens. The owner of Frontwards, Jason, was a really nice and passionate guy. He gave up a landscaping business to run his farm full-time recently. His CSA has been growing and he’s been expanding his farm and its offerings slowly but surely.

Thong the farm dog (A. Breeding)

Thong the farm dog (A. Breeding)

We also visited the Lick Creek Beef Farm, which is a 100% grass-fed beef farm near Buncombe, IL. The farm has over 200 acres of pasture and a herd of “Black Baldy,” which is a cross between the Hereford and Angus breeds. The pasture itself boasts a diverse “salad bar” of red and white clover, some fescue, buffalo grass, etc. The owner and one of his trusted border collies, Thong (“named for the sandal, not the underwear”), actually wrangled the herd out of the shade for a bit so we could have a peek at these black and white beauties. :) Lick Creek Beef is sold at some of the local farmers’ markets, and at a Carbondale burger shop, so I look forward to trying some of this locally renowned beef very soon!

And thus ended week #3! ‘Til next time!

Allison BreedingAllison Breeding is a senior Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University. She was awarded an agroecology research fellowship through a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) fellowship this summer at Southern IL University. This summer she is writing from the field as a SUST at RU guest blogger.

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