Soil Scientist: Jerry Glover

Soil Scientist: Jerry Glover

Profile of soil scientist and Emerging Explorer Jerry Glover.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Biology, Ecology

EARLY WORK

Jerry grew up on a farm in the high plains of Colorado—“the home of the Dust Bowl,” he says.

Although he was familiar with agriculture and crops such as wheat and sorghum, it wasn’t until Jerry was in his late twenties that he realized “soil science” was an actual field of study.

He was pursuing his undergraduate degree in philosophy when he became an intern at the Land Institute. Learning about perennials and their possible agricultural and ecological uses “was a total game-changer for me,” Jerry says. “It was an epiphany.”

It was a completely different way of thinking about science and ecology, Jerry says. “The way we think about the science of agriculturecrop rotation, fertilizer, pesticides—that’s the software. The plants, they’re the hardware. We’re usually thinking of developing new software for old hardware. We’re trying to put Photoshop on a Commodore 64! By developing and expanding use of perennials, we could design new hardware.”

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Working in native grasslands. I work with specialists who study insects, microbial diversity, chemistry. . . . My wife studies nematode populations. Working from such different perspectives, I am constantly reminded how well the [native grass] ecosystem works—how elegant, how beautiful.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Sitting at a desk, writing a paper.”

Jerry says the work of publishing can be tiring. It often takes a year to have a scientific article published in a magazine like Science. Even top scientists like Jerry must revise their work. “Everyone gets rejected,” he says. Scientists submit their article, revise it, submit it again, and make new revisions. The cycle repeats until the paper is published.

Although he usually prefers to be in the field, studying soil and plants, Jerry realizes that publishing and communicating with other scientists is very important to his field of study. “You gotta do it,” he says.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“The study of the Earth.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Agriculture has been identified as one of the greatest manmade threats to ecosystems on Earth, and Jerry believes annual plants like rice, wheat, and corn are a big part of the problem. “Annual plants, which die every year, have very shallow root systems. Annuals usually need more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, because their root systems do not retain nutrients very well,” he explains.

Perennial plants like sunflowers, on the other hand, bloom every year without having to be replanted. Jerry explains: “Perennial plants have incredibly deep root systems. They can extend dozens of feet into the soil. This anchors the soil, limiting erosion and runoff. It also allows perennial plants to survive periods of little precipitation. Their roots extend so far, they can access water that plants with shorter root systems simply cannot.

“When you apply fertilizer or pesticides on an annual plant, you always lose it. It seeps into the soil, into the groundwater. It washes away as runoff, which is pollution for rivers. . . . With perennials, what you put in [water, nutrients], stays in.

Perennials increase water infiltration, which means they retain water in the soil and texture of the plant. They also have decreased transpiration, meaning that perennial plants are less likely to lose water vapor into the atmosphere. The long root systems of perennial plants, as well as their lower rate of transpiration, mean that perennial crops do not need to be irrigated as often as annuals.”

With perennials, “Weeds are just not a problem,” says Jerry.

Jerry and his colleagues are working to develop perennial versions of such familiar crops as rice, wheat, and sorghum. Switchgrass, a perennial grass, is one of the plants considered for biofuel, an alternative to fossil fuel.

Plant breeders are working to show “proof of concept,” or proof that perennial crops can be reliable and profitable. “The benchmark is going to be a yield of one ton per hectare, with little to no environmental damage,” said Jerry.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . SOIL SCIENTIST

“Remember to study entire systems. . . . Sometimes soil scientists limit themselves to just one area of study: the chemistry of the soil, or the biology, or the ecology. Try to see the whole picture.”

GET INVOLVED

“Garden! Understand how plants converting sunlight, water, and oxygen into simple sugars drives almost everything on the planet! It’s such an unbelievable process, and it’s so poorly understood even by scientists.”

Media Credits

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Writers
National Geographic Society
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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