Jan 162010
Authors: Matt Minich

CSU’s soil and crop sciences department may not be older than dirt, but it’s close.

In 1909, CSU faculty members Alvin Kezer and D.W. Frear founded the department, then known as Agronomy, to educate a student population that, at the time, was largely made up of Northern Colorado farm boys hoping to take their education home to family farms.

Over the course of the 100 years since, these family farms have become a rarity. As the bulk of the nation’s population migrated to urban areas over the course of the 20th century, agriculture became an increasingly industrialized industry.

This shift has done little to inhibit the success of one of CSU’s oldest departments, which celebrated its 100th anniversary at a gala dinner in September. At the dinner, 150 graduates of the program gave tribute to the department’s 13 “legends,” and heard talks from faculty members and visiting speakers alike.

Now known as the Soil and Crop Sciences Department, Kezer and Frear’s brainchild has grown to include 29 faculty, 40 graduate students and 67 undergraduates. Though it has seen its numbers drop slightly in recent years, due to university-wide budget cuts, department head Gary Peterson still hopes to see it expand.

“We’re trying to become more well-known, beyond agricultural circles,” Peterson said.

Due to changes in the agricultural sector and the emerging science of climate change, the department has come to focus more and more on the environmental and ecological aspects of agronomy.

This focus, which applies the department’s sciences to the struggle against global climate change, has not only helped ensure the department’s survival but earned professor Keith Paustian a share in the Nobel Peace Prize.

A member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which received the award in 2007, Paustian used his soil science background to help develop a method countries could use to calculate individual carbon emissions.

“Soils are one of the most important, if not the most important resource we have,” Paustian said. The shift in the science of agronomy toward an environmental focus has created “tremendous challenges but also tremendous excitement” within the department and the whole of the field, he said.

While resource preservation and carbon emission tracking have become central to the department, it has not neglected agricultural concerns altogether. Researchers in the department continue to study the genetics of wheat, barley and other crops in an effort to engineer superior strains.

Professor Scott Haley both teaches and researches the genetics of wheat. He works not only in the university’s classrooms and greenhouse but at the university’s agricultural research center and on wheat fields across Colorado, where farmers donate land to the university’s studies.

“(The landowners) feel like they’re benefiting just by having us there,” Haley said. Farmers do not take any portion of the crops, which are studied for their resistance to herbicides, drought tolerance and quality.

For quality tests, some of the wheat is milled into flour and baked in a laboratory on campus. After tests are concluded on the bread, Haley said, the loaves — usually the size of a grapefruit — are left in the department’s main office and eaten.

“We think of ourselves as a family of soil and crop scientists,” said Jack Fenwick, a recently retired professor, who was named as one of the department’s legends at the Gala in September for his outstanding work as both a teacher and as an advisor. “We all get along very well.”

Senior Reporter Matt Minich can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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