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UK researcher’s innovative soil study earns national attention
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Climate change is a highly discussed and attention-getting subject these days. One young assistant professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky has taken a huge interest in the climate, so much so that she’s researching ways of improving it.
For her soil management and climate-friendly efforts, The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) in Washington, D.C., recently honored Hanna Poffenbarger with the FFAR New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award.
Young faculty in the sciences often find it difficult to obtain grant funding. To launch the careers of scientists whose research addresses critical food and agricultural challenges, FFAR established the New Innovator Awards to help young researchers launch success research careers. By receiving these awards, grantees can concentrate entirely on research without being pressured to secure additional funding.
“I think climate change has become such an urgent issue,” said Poffenbarger, an assistant professor of soil nutrient management in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “I’m interested in doing my part to reduce the effects of it on humanity. I feel that building up soil organic matter is an important way of not only combating it, but adapting. Building up soil organic matter is not only important for removing carbon from the atmosphere, but also, to make the soils more healthy and resilient.”
Poffenbarger was never in 4-H but did join FFA in high school. And though she didn’t live on a farm, she gained farm experience because her grandmother lived on a farm. There she worked the farm with her uncle. Eventually, Hanna’s parents purchased a farm before she graduated from high school. Tilling the farm and working the soil led her to an interest in soil research.
“I was always interested in the interaction of how humans manage the land and how that affects the environment,” she said. “Growing up, I was passionate about water quality and climate change. Then, the exposure to FFA and farming led me to the study of food production and the environment.”
And soil research. Poffenbarger hopes she can discover management practices to protect soil and regenerate soil organic matter, which can aid in creating a healthier planet. While most research centers on the top six inches of soil, Poffenbarger wants to better understand the layers below that.
“A lot of our understanding of carbon in the soil comes from studies that just focus on the top layer,” Poffenbarger said. “The studies we do have shown different responses to management. For example, tillage usually decreases organic matter in the topsoil, but can sometimes build up soil carbon in deeper layers. So, there is a lack of knowledge in the deep soil, but it is important to understand because half or more of the carbon can be found below the topsoil.”
Organic matter is a key component of soil that affects its physical, chemical and biological properties, contributing greatly to its proper functions on which human societies depend. Higher organic matter in the soil builds up its structure, or tilth, which means more physical stability. This increases oxygen in the soil and water drainage and retention. It also lowers the danger of erosion and nutrient leaching.
Plant roots are very effective at building soil organic matter. Increasing root growth can enhance soil health. However, uncertainties exist which limit the capability to take advantage of the soil health attributes roots could provide.
“Through our research, we hope to learn which aspects of roots are most beneficial to soil health, and how we can manage soils to maximize the benefits from roots,” Poffenbarger said. “Finding some of the answers to this question could help our planet become a healthier place. Soils are limited natural resources. While they are treated as renewable due to the fact they are constantly forming, their production occurs at exceedingly slow rates. A single inch of topsoil can take hundreds of years to mature.”
Poffenbarger believes that her research will be very beneficial in helping the earth reverse some of the effects of climate change.
“I like the research because I enjoy the learning and discovery processes,” she said. “I never get bored and there’s always questions to pursue.”