Tackling the challenge of rejuvenating soil while producing a significant amount of produce

By Morgan Bayer

KUTZTOWN, Pa.—KU is working with Rodale Institute, a research institution on regenerative organic farming, to initiate a new Regenerative Agriculture program that uses the methods and techniques of regenerative farming combined with scientific technology to produce vegetation using the designated 15 acres on-campus. Dr. Jacob Sewall took time to explain the goals of this new program and introduce the first steps the class is currently undertaking.

The fifteen acres of land used for the regenerative agricultural program.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

The program started this fall semester as part of the Environmental Science major. Its first task is to teach students how to collect, test and establish baseline measurements of the soil that will be used to produce vegetation through regenerative methods. This semester, the course will be taught by three different faculty members, including microbiologist Dr. Kaoutar El Mounadi, geologist Dr. Sewall and ecologist Dr. Chris Habeck. “Once we have those baselines,” Sewall explained, “then it’s a matter of experimentation as an academic institution.” By this, he meant they will divide the 15 acres into plots to test different treatments on the soil. The treatments will then be monitored over time for nutrients, bacteria and fungi ratio and bulk density (its water holding capacity) within the soil.

The program comes at an opportune time after temperatures rose this past August, breaking records while paired with a drought. Sewall explained that regenerative methods are going to be important components because “the weaker the soil is, the less resilient it will be with temperature and precipitation extremes.” The program will keep monitoring and testing various treatments with the objective of finding what is effective at regenerating the soil and how quickly it can be done.

The program will guide students through the Course-based Undergraduate Experiences (CURE) method, which will give the students a real-world experience that other academic institutions may not necessarily provide, Sewall said. Many academic curricula have everything prepared for the students. With this method, students will learn how to set up their own experiments in order to test their hypotheses.

El Mounadi currently runs the lab portion by teaching students how to establish baseline microbial community in the soil. Three groups were formed in the lab to test different aspects of the soil: Microbial Biomass, including fungi/bacteria ratio, Microbial Community Analysis and Molecular Analysis including the DNA extract.

Dr. Sewall organizing the three different soil testing tasks for the three groups.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

The first group, which examined the bacteria-to-fungi ratio in the soil, provided one soil sample ratio of “2% fungi and 98% bacteria.” Sewall said, “As soil becomes impoverished, fungal networks get destroyed, being dominated by bacteria.”

Dr. El Mounadi with one group of students in the lab.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

In order to test this, students will use a program called microBiometer, which utilizes a testing card and an app that can be read and used for data input and translation of the fungal-to-bacteria ratio.

The microBIOMETER program used to test fungi and bacteria ratio in the soil.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

Another group tested the DNA in the soil, which shows what type of bacteria and fungi are present. This answers the question of whether this type of bacteria is harmful or beneficial for the soil.

One group of students testing the soil samples.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

The last group tested the carbon print of the soil, which shows how the bacteria and fungi are utilizing the carbon left over within it. The samples that display this measurement look clear, but when introduced to a dye solution, a chemical reaction causes them to turn purple. The darker the purple color, the more the bacteria is using the carbon source. If the sample is very light or clear, the bacteria is not able to utilize the carbon source.

The testing tray displaying the bacteria’s utilization of the carbon source through purple dye.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

This is the first time this class is running, and “it is an experimental process for all of us,” El Mounadi explained as she moved from one room to the other to check on each group. Sewall helped to document each result and keep all samples organized out of 35 soil samples the class retrieved from the field early in the semester.

The last group of students testing soil samples.
Photo by Morgan Bayer. 2022.

The students will also have the opportunity and resources to visit and intern at Rodale Institute, learning from their procedures and talking with scientists during the progression of the curriculum. Rodale has been conducting research since 1947, and both programs (Rodale and KU) have a symbiotic relationship in how they learn and share various findings particular to the land and resources with each other. 

Students taking the Environmental Science major will go on to complete eight courses paired with labs to further learn the regenerative agricultural process: Fundamentals of Regenerative Agriculture, Food Justice, Fundamentals of Soil, Climate Change Agriculture, Entomology of Agriculture, Plant Pathology, Soil Analysis and Geochemical Cycling is the complete course progression. 

The program coordinators have considered collaboration with the on-campus food bank, which will also contribute to the affiliated Food Justice course in the spring. Sewall said that if the program grows beyond this, it will look to the community and regional food banks to donate the program’s yield. It is not yet known if volunteers will be recruited from other fields of study– however, it could become a collective initiative for the KU community in semesters to come.


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