Leaving for greener pastures: Crops and soils agent to go to Michael Fields Institute

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

JANESVILLE—Dr. Dirt is returning to home soil.

After a decade as UW Extension's crops and soils agent for Rock County, Jim Stute is returning to Walworth County to take a position as research program director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy. Stute previously worked at the institute as an outreach coordinator.

“At Extension, you tend to be pulled in all sorts of different directions, and that's a good thing because you're serving people,” Stute said. “But this was a tremendous opportunity.”

Those “different directions” included working with local producers on everything from crop issues to pesticide training, doing research at the Rock County Farm, teaching tractor safety to kids, working with the Rock County Board and serving as office administrator.

He also taught basic soil science courses to master gardeners who affectionately dubbed him, “Dr. Dirt.”

Stute would tell master gardeners, “It's not dirt, it's soil. Soil is a living thing. Dirt is something on the kitchen floor that you sweep up and throw away.”

It's concern for the soil that's taking him to Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on education, policy and research in sustainable agriculture.

“We're going to have something like 9 billion people to feed by 2050,” Stute said. “We're not making any more farm land. In fact, we're destroying it at a rapid pace.”

The answer, he said, is not to farm marginal land.

“We're going to have to find ways to maintain soil health and feed all these folks,” Stute said.

His job at Michael Fields will give him the chance to “really ramp up” cover crop research.

Cover crops are grown to protect and improve the soil. They are not typically intended for harvest, Stute explained. Cover crops can provide a variety of benefits including adding nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for tilling, and in some cases, reducing pest populations.

However, a significant part of Stute's new job at Michael Field's will involve taking part in a long-term study that compares conventional, organic and biodynamic farming practices.

In his 10 years in Rock County, Stute has seen significant changes in the local and national agricultural scene.

In dairy: Farm modernization has picked up speed, with new and expanded facilities, such as the Rock Prairie Dairy in the town of Bradford.  The $30 million project, which has a 5,200-cow capacity, opened almost two years ago.

In crops: A “fundamental shift” in commodity prices.

“For the most part, everything has doubled,” Stute, said. “But at the same time, input prices have gone up.  There's so much more money at risk in a given year.”

In food production: The “local foods” movement has gained steam, Stute said.

The movement, which encourages consumers to buy food grown locally, has been buoyed by increased concerns about the quality and safety of large farms and the carbon footprint associated with moving food across the country—or across the world.

Stute will start his new job at Michael Fields on Jan. 31.

Matt Hanson, UW Extension southwest regional director said refilling Rock County's ag agent position was a "high priority" and he hoped to find a strong candidate in the early part of 2014.

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