Dr. Robin (Buz) Kloot has been a scientist and self-proclaimed soil health nut for years, but he only recently discovered the merits of crowdsourcing as a research funding mechanism. A research associate professor in the department of environmental health sciences’ (ENHS) SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, Dr. Kloot is interested in advancing sustainable farming methods (e.g., soil conservation) that benefit farmers, the environment, and public health.
[Photo: L to R: Graduate Student Mr. Gabe Kenne and Dr. Buz Kloot]
A couple years ago, Dr. Kloot was approached by Mr. Carl Coleman, a farmer in Dillon, SC, who shared an interest in healthy soil and had some acreage to spare. The two raised $5,022 using experiment.com, a crowdfunding website that supports scientific research, to study how much fertilizer farmers actually need to grow their crops.
Current land grant fertilizer recommendations for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) were typically developed more than 20 years ago and do not reflect a number of significant organic and other pools of N, P, and K that scientists believe reside in healthy functioning soils. With the no-till revolution that took off 20-30 years ago and the recent cover crop revolution, many soils have come alive and innovative farmers are beginning to question the existing recommendations. In fact, the 41 backers who funded the project were predominantly farmers.
“If you follow the soil health revolution, you’ll notice that the drivers of this revolution are farmers — not industry and certainly not researchers,” says Dr. Kloot. “Many of our supporters are farmers, and it’s doubtful that we would have found any of this funding through the regular channels.”
Enlisting study design and soil analysis assistance from Clemson University associate professor Dr. Dara Park, Dr. Kloot and Mr. Coleman set out to determine how little fertilizer they could use on Coleman’s wheat crops. Their experiment aimed to not only help farmers, who spend more than half their standard crop budgets (up to $190/acre) on commercial fertilizers, but to benefit the environment and the soil as well.
The researchers believe that healthy soil requires less than 20 percent of the currently used amounts. This decrease would see a corresponding reduction in energy expenditure (e.g., energy content of commercial nitrogen), fertilizer in local waterbodies (up to 90 percent less), and carbon released into the environment (an estimated 2,400/acre per year).
“Soils are living integrated ecosystems and if treated as ecosystems, will provide farmers with services that were previously bought,” says Dr. Kloot, explaining their overarching approach.
After completing this initial research, Dr. Kloot and Mr. Coleman decided to continue the project and to follow the effect of nitrogen and potassium in the soil over three more years. In 2016, the pair raised another $20,199 — again through crowdsourcing on experiment.com. This time, they were also able to benefit from the contributing funds program offered by USC’s Office of the Vice President for Research.