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Retired ARS Soils Lab scientist Don Reicosky in just one of three scientists receiving the 2009 Soil Science Distinguished Service Award from the Soil Science Society of America.

Soils Lab's Reicosky a giant in carbon field

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

As is the case with a lot of serious scientists, any detailed discussion of their work tends to set a layman's head spinning.

Such is the case with retired ARS Soils Lab soils scientist Don Reicosky.

As one colleague joked recently, visitors to Reicosky's "usually leave in a body bag."

But Reicosky's ground-breaking work on tillage-induced carbon dioxide loss, carbon sequestration and other related issues -- and his ability to convey the information in an entertaining way -- has made him a world-wide authority.

It's also why his 40 years of research is being recognized by the Soil Science Society of America.

Reicosky is one of only three scientists to receive the SSSA's 2009 Soil Science Distinguished Service Award. The award and honorarium will be presented to Reicosky during a program Nov. 4 in Pittsburgh.

"It's gratifying to have your peers honor you; it means a lot to me," Reicosky said in his office teeming with books and papers. "I have the philosophy that you work hard and play hard. I've spent a lot of time in here and it's good to know it meant something."

Soils Lab scientists and colleagues Frank Forcella and Sharon Papiernik nominated Reicosky for the SSSA honor.

"We think, especially as a scientist, Don's service had been outstanding," Papiernik said. "People around the world use his techniques, which says a lot about what he's accomplished.

Reicosky grew up in agriculture and he began his work as an ARS soil scientist in 1969.

His work confirmed the need for reduce tillage practices and continuing attention to soil quality and environmental conservation.

Reicosky and a colleague were working near the Soils Lab in Morris, measuring the effects of a killing frost on plant death and carbon loss. They noticed a farmer plowing next to them, and decided to take measurements from that land.

"It was a bit of serendipity," Reicosky said. "

Numerous tests under differing conditions showed that "there was a lot of CO2 coming out of that soil," Reicosky said.

He developed instrumentation to measure gas escaping from soils and demonstrated that higher loss of important carbon was directly related to the amount of soil disturbed in the tilling process.

In the nomination, Forcella and Papiernik wrote, "Dr. Reicosky's research showed that soil disturbance has immediate and long-term effects on soil organic matter that can be devastating for agriculture and the environment. His research results have improved understanding of carbon sequestration in soil and supported the increase in conservation tillage throughout the world."

Reicosky has been invited to give more than 50 presentations of his work in 19 countries, most recently in Argentina. His research papers have been translated into many languages so land managers across the globe can more clearly understand why conservation tillage is important.

"That that many people in different countries want to hear about your research make you feel good," Reicosky said.

Closer to home, Reicosky is still working at the Soils Lab in retirement, and he's a "Champion" for the Stevens Forward! goal of making Stevens County carbon-neutral. He said he'd eventually like to develop a system that cities, counties, farms, industries, even individuals, can use to calculate their "carbon footprint" and make decisions that will reduce negative climate change.

"I'd like for people to know what they can do to become carbon neutral, give people an understanding of what's happening," Reicosky said.

The implications that became clear through Reicosky's work also points up economic importance.

Carbon markets and carbon credits were terms few people had heard or used 10 years ago. But by 2010, the global market in carbon could total $2.1 trillion. As a baseline, Reicosky notes that gold bullion, which is the basis for the U.S. economy, totals $4.4 trillion.

"The carbon market could be half of gold bullion," he said. "To me, that shows how important soil carbon is, how important the carbon market is."