M.S. student, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture

Stepping out of a major and into a career

Agronomy master’s student Brittany Kirsch says stepping outside her major with the NRT has made her a more well-rounded candidate for careers in her major.

“If I was just in agronomy, I wouldn’t meet many people in other majors,” Kirsch says. “In the NRT, there are lawyers, computer scientists, ecologists and people I would have never interacted with otherwise. It puts a new spin on the topics that the world of agriculture is focused on.”

Brittany with rain simulator

The NRT training requires graduate students from differing majors to collaborate, and Kirsch says this has allowed her to see other people’s perspectives on agronomy and share her own.

“When you get stuck in just your major, you kind of have blinders on,” she says. “So, being able to see other majors’ perspectives as well as being able to offer my own has proven valuable. In conversations with other students, someone will say, ‘Oh, I guess I never really thought about it like that,’ whereas it’s a topic I grew up with. It doesn’t seem new to me.”

Being part of the NRT also allows Kirsch to take classes like “Community Engagement for Civic Change” and “Environmental Conflict Management” outside her major. She is considering a career in extension or the Natural Resources Conservation Service and sees how such classes could prove useful.

“I think some of the information I’m learning in my community engagement class now is going to be helpful as well as the conflict management course I took,” Kirsch says. “That one was helpful because I know there are contentious topics between policymakers and farmers, and knowing how to go about approaching different topics would definitely help in the future.”

She says she understands farmers because she grew up in a farm family near Algona, Iowa. Although her father was a car mechanic and her mother a high school teacher, her grandparents and uncles were all farmers she helped work the land.

“Farmers are usually concerned about their bottom lines as well as the environment and are just trying to find that happy medium where they’re not going to go broke trying to change their entire practice but they can still do little things that will help themselves and everybody in the long run,” she says.

Understanding this, she launched her master’s project to study the impact of farming and various land uses on water quality.

She and her advisors, Andrea Basche and Jessica Corman, have studied 17 watersheds with different percentages of their acres planted with corn and soybeans or with pasture to determine whether land use and the annual weather pattern affect the amount of nitrate, phosphorous and suspended sediments getting washed into nearby streams.

Brittany with bromide

“So far, we have seen that watersheds with a high percentage of the corn and soybeans tend to have more nitrates, phosphorous and suspended sediments in the water,” Kirsch says. “It’s a bit of a wakeup call that it’s all washing into the streams.”

A possible solution she sees for farmers who want to use their land for corn and soybeans instead of pasture is using cover crops.

In her thesis research, she has also been testing the use of rainfall simulators on a streambank to measure erosion.

“In previous research, simulators have been in the middle of a field; however, we wanted to see how the runoff interacted with the stream itself to see if anything exciting happened,” she says.

She and fellow researchers are still analyzing the data but, so far, have found the experiment and methods worked.

“The water that we put on the banks ended up in the stream, and it brought nutrients and sediments with it,” she says. “So far, the agricultural stream has had a lot higher concentrations of everything than the Spring Creek Prairie did, so it highlights that land use is important and it’s affecting our water quality and that ultimately affects our drinking water.”

She looks forward to communicating such findings to farmers.

“I’m excited knowing I will be able to use this information I am researching, as well as information other people have researched, and help apply that to farmers’ real-life situations,” she says.

— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator 

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