Jerry Hatfield recently retired as head of the USDA’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, formerly known as the National Soil Tilth Lab, at Iowa State University.
Hatfield grew up on a farm near Manhattan, Kansas. He earned a B.S. in agronomy at Kansas State University, a master’s in agronomy and crop physiology at the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. at ISU. During his graduate work he did research on the relationship between plants and the environment, such as how plants capture light.
Upon earning his Ph.D. in 1975 he got a job working at the University of California-Davis as a bio meteorologist looking at crops and weather. That meant working with dozens of crops on issues such as water management and micro-climates.
He left Davis in 1983 to work for the USDA in Lubbock, Texas, on plant stress issues.
Then he came to Ames in 1989 to direct the soil tilth lab and develop the research program.
IFT: When you came to Ames, what was the job?
HATFIELD: I was starting the National Soil Tilth Lab. There was a new building but no staff yet. We were to be a trans-disciplinary research lab, which was unusual at the time. Up until then, most researchers had been working only in their own disciplines and they rarely talked to each other (outside their own discipline).
IFT: Tell us about that journey since then. How did you approach the job?
HATFIELD: It’s been a fantastic journey. I guess I would say that we started with the basic question for farmers of why do you do the things you do? And the follow-up is, “Can we help you do it better?”
There are a lot of questions that go into that along the way. For example, are all of your fields making money? And do you know your nitrogen use efficiency or your water efficiency?
All of those questions led us toward the idea of looking at the formula of genetics x environment x management. And it should be noted that management also includes a sociological aspect. All of these things work together. You can’t really address profitability without addressing those items. You can’t really address water quality on the farm without addressing those things.
Let me give you an example. We worked with Wayne Fredericks, who farms in northern Iowa. From 2003 to 2018 we collected data off of Wayne’s farm. We figured out that in his county, more spring rain generally leads to lower yields. We looked at soil organic matter changes and soils and farm practices. We learned that changes in tillage and cover crops improve the soil and crop yield, but the most exciting part is the increase in field uniformity, which leads to more profitability.
IFT: Today people are talking about issues such as water quality and soil health. How do you talk about those issues with farmers?
HATFIELD: We don’t just talk about agriculture in terms of yield, but in terms of the entire agricultural ecosystem. That means water quality, pollinator habitat, production, societal issues. If we actually have an honest conversation about how all of those things are important, we can solve many of those problems.
IFT: Climate is also a big issue today, and it would appear to be a piece of all these conversations.
HATFIELD: When we talk about climate, we talk about how the last 10 years have seen the most variable weather conditions of the last 125 years. We are seeing trends in climate with more spring rainfall and more variable summer rainfall, which are two factors that contribute to variable yields.
Farmers need to understand that and be prepared to deal with it. There is more variability today, and we need to understand that and develop systems to reduce the impact of that variability.
Let’s look at agriculture from an efficiency point of view. Our corn-soybean rotation is a leaky system. Are there ways we can make our farm operations more efficient in the way they handle water and nitrogen and productivity and profitability?
IFT: Soil health seems to be a trendy topic these days. That must be exciting for you?
HATFIELD: Absolutely. Soil has intrinsic value. We have to ask how we look at that value. We need to look at the entire ecosystem. It’s funny, we talk sometimes about the arrogance of agronomy. By that we mean that our attitude has too often been that we can use agronomy and crop breeding to solve just about any problem instead of looking at our entire agricultural system.
IFT: It sounds a bit like the airplane designers who say that if you put a big enough engine on it they could make anything fly.
HATFIELD: That’s right. Instead, we would like farmers to look at ideas such as yield per investment of input instead of just yield. I really think agriculture is poised for another revolution, but this one will be in looking at risk and quality and the entire system instead of just at yield.