Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Educating the Next Generation of Scientists is Important for Agriculture’s Future

SMSU student Ryan Vinson calibrates a sprayer as part of his internship under Adam Alford, assistant professor of agronomy. Photo: Adam Alford

By Carol Brown

Within a research community, most scientists have a team working to discover a solution to a problem. Many times, the team includes university master’s level students or Ph.D. candidates. The research aspires to a scientific breakthrough, which helps the student earn the higher educational degree.

There are other situations where the education itself is just as important as a project’s hypothesis and result. Adam Alford is an assistant professor of agronomy at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. He focuses on bringing agriculture to SMSU undergraduates, exposing them to careers in the industry and preparing them for further education. 

The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council has been supporting Alford’s projects for the last couple years. Training the next generation of scientists in the agriculture industry is as important as the research conducted to improve a crop’s performance.

“We run a lot of experiments at SMSU, and the projects provide hands-on experience,” Alford says. “Our grant funders understand this, and I strive to obtain grants to provide higher-quality lessons for my students, which also improves my teaching abilities.”

Alford teaches a number of subjects including integrated pest management (IPM), precision agriculture, experimental design, plant and soil nutrition, weed science, crop quality and traits, and plant breeding. His students also have quite a range of agricultural exposure. There are 25 to 30 agronomy majors at SMSU, he says, and approximately one-third come from a farm background. Another third of them have had some exposure to agriculture through a family member or a job. The last third of agronomy majors have never been on a farm. 

Because of this range of topics and ag exposure, having research plots to use as teaching aids becomes even more important. Alford oversees the University’s 50-acre research site, located a few miles from campus.

“Agriculture is a visual science. You can see if something is working or not,” Alford explains. “In chemistry, for example, we have to have faith that the chemicals exist since we can’t see the molecules or the moving electrons. I can take the students to the farm and show what iron deficiency chlorosis in soybeans looks like and teach them why it has appeared. I can show what happens when fertilizer is applied over a period of time, and more.”

SMSU student Victoria Imafidor monitors seed in the planters at the University’s research trial site near Marshall, Minnesota. Photo: Adam Alford

On some of the plots, Alford has had to purposefully degrade the soil to visually demonstrate crop issues. He has been growing continual corn without fertilizer on one plot to create nutrient deficiencies in the soil. This spring, he’ll plant soybeans for a phosphorus rate demonstration to show how different rates impact soybean growth and development. In another area, there is a cover crop demonstration. He grows squash on a plot to attract plenty of insects for his integrated pest management course. 

“I grow both row crops and horticulture crops — we try to grow as much as we can,” he says. “Some of my students know corn and soybeans really well. But, depending on where they may end up after graduation, they could be working or studying in entirely different growing environments.”

When students have more exposure and experience as an undergraduate, Alford believes they are more competitive for graduate school or a job. He teaches about field research and the issues that can come with it, and students gain experience in areas such as data gathering and statistical analysis. The University has a 100% job placement rate with the agronomy majors, he says, because they are well prepared.

Alford is thankful to the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council for helping fund these educational opportunities. Setting up the research plots, as well as inputs, equipment and labor, are expensive.

“Funding from the Council also helped to support two students over the summer last year,” he says. “One student, Victoria Imafidor, is from Nigeria and was unfamiliar with American agriculture. After her summer internship, she knows how to drive a tractor, how to run a combine, and how to plant. Through this experience, she realized that she’s more interested in laboratory science. Sometimes hands-on experience can demonstrate what directions you want to go — or don’t want to go.”

Published: Mar 11, 2024

The materials on SRIN were funded with checkoff dollars from United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program. To find checkoff funded research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.