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Soil Health Minute: Why we do what we do

With the Extension Service, we often ask ourselves "why do you do what you do?" as a way to get at the core of our programming and to keep us moving forward in a positive way.

Getting to the "why" of what you're doing can be difficult and require a little soul-searching. It's one of those questions that you think may be easy to answer, but when you start writing down "what" you do, "how" you do it so that you can get to the "why" you do it, it gets a little more complicated and may take several days to finally get to the answer.

I think it's good to check in and ask this question no matter what your profession is, especially when engaging in soil health practices or programming. It can lead to a better, more complete understanding of what drives you to navigate the complicated course of your career. Not that I want to get too personal, but I'll run through my process of asking this series of questions for my position as both an assistant professor and soil health specialist at North Dakota State University.

What do I do? This is a pretty long list, like many of you may have for your careers...so this process gets difficult right off the bat! For those that may not know, my position is 90 percent Extension and 10 percent research. Faculty at universities have these splits so that their job obligations can be defined and performance can be assessed. With this split, I am required to both contribute to the scientific knowledge being developed along with training graduate students on the scientific method (that's the 10 percent research). In addition, I develop effective programs to train educators, networks to transfer information and share science-based information with the public using written, digital and verbal formats (the 90 percent Extension). Then there's some service mixed in there that means serving on various committees.

How do I do what I do? Uff, another complicated question with a lengthy list. For both research and Extension activities, I am required to obtain funding from external sources through grant writing — basically only our faculty and some technician (but not my technician) salaries are covered by NDSU. So, when I have the grant money in place, I find the personnel to do the work. This means hiring graduate students, hourly workers, technicians. It takes an army of people to do what we do! I then coordinate activities to make sure we achieve the objectives of the projects we propose.

I also coordinate (to some level) the statewide soil health efforts which requires me to stay informed of research and Extension activities happening at the state, regional and county level. It also requires me to be aware of soil health programs and research being done by the Agricultural Research Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Soil Conservation Districts. Behind the scenes, I coordinate and attend many meetings with various groups to make sure we are developing cohesive messages, that our programs are not duplicating efforts and everything is running in parallel.

I develop Extension programs that can be used at the state, regional or county level. This may include presentations, webinars, resources that often are accompanied by personal advising. To keep those programs relevant, I keep my finger on the pulse of the current scientific research and on-farm practices. This involves working closely with researchers on campus and at NDSU REC's and other experts across the globe who are working in soil health. It also involves numerous on-farm visits — in fact, I have estimated that I work closely with just over 100 farmers, have had my hands in the soil of over 50,000 acres and advised on more than 250,000 acres in the past six years. I also am active on Twitter and other web-based outlets to stay connected.

Why do I do what I do? After much contemplation and initial answers of "because I want to advance science" or "protect the soil resource," it comes down to something much simpler in words but more complex with regards to actions: "I do what I do because I care." I care about science, the soil resource, farm legacies, my colleagues and farmers.

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