Finding solutions for farmers: Matt Ruark

By the time Matt Ruark turned 12 years old, he had lived in Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. As a young scientist, he also saw a variety of soils and crops while completing undergraduate and M.S. degrees in soil science at the University of Minnesota, a Ph.D. in agronomy at Purdue, and post-doctoral work at the University of California–Davis.

Matt Ruark

Ruark now uses his diverse experience to identify and find solutions to agricultural issues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. There he is an assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science, and he also works as an extension specialist in the University of Wisconsin Extension program.

Here’s what Soil Horizons learned about how Ruark came to put down roots in the soils of Wisconsin and what he finds exciting about his career as a soil scientist.

Soil Horizons: How did you become interested in soil science?

Ruark: I was always interested in becoming a scientist and chose to go the University of Minnesota because it had an environmental science degree program. Within that degree, I specialized in soil science, mostly on the advice of my undergraduate adviser, Paul Bloom. Once I took that first soils class, I was hooked. I also worked for the soil fertility field crew with George Rehm, Mike Schmidt, John Lamb, and Carl Rosen, and I really enjoyed being involved with field-based research. In my mind, it became clear that agricultural systems were the “environment” I wanted to study, and I chose to focus on issues affecting agricultural production and environmental quality.

Soil Horizons: Where have you worked and how did you end up where you are today?

Ruark: My first job out of college was working for a grain company at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. I worked on the trading floor, entering trades and taking phone calls from the grain elevators. The company I worked for was one of the smaller companies, and consequently, our booth on the trading floor was the farthest booth from the trading pit. When the grain elevators wanted toc buy or sell futures, I’d stand on my chair and yell to our trader in the pit, and he’d yell back a price. If trading was busy, though, our trader wouldn’t be able to hear me over the noise, so I’d have to run into the pit and physically grab the trader to get him to buy or sell based on what the grain elevator needed.

That was a fun job. The trading floor was a combination of energetic twenty-somethings and grizzled, hard-drinking old-timers. In any case, I knew this wasn’t the career for me because I never seemed to have the sense for how much the wheat price was going to increase because Kansas didn’t get rain over the weekend.

After six months of watching wheat prices hover around $2.00 per bushel, I started my M.S. with John Lamb. Two years later, I started my Ph.D. at Purdue with Sylvie Brouder. While at Purdue, I met my wife, Jenny, who was also a soils grad student. Then it was off to California for a few years before landing a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin.

One of the benefits of moving around was the experiences I gained working in different agricultural systems, including sugarbeet, corn, soybean, grasslands, rice, and switchgrass. For me, the key was to focus on the basics of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycling and then apply this knowledge in some way to address an issue (agronomic or environmental) facing a cropping system in a particular region. Another advantage to having experiences at multiple institutions is getting to know other graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists. I’ve made a lot of great friends along the way, many of whom are colleagues at other institutions.

Soil Horizons: If I were to shadow you for a day at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, what would I typically see you doing?

Ruark: My research focuses on soil fertility and nutrient cycling in grain, vegetable, and biofuel productions systems. On a typical day, you would see me writing or driving. Writing proposals, writing Extension articles and bulletins, writing reports and papers. With my primary Extension appointment, I also spend a lot of my time traveling. Traveling to grower meetings, traveling to field days, traveling to government or industry meetings. I do not write and drive at the same time though.

Soil Horizons: What do you enjoy most about your work?

Ruark: I like the excitement that comes with being able to identify an important agricultural or environmental issue and being able to do something about it. Sure, the “doing something about it” can be a long, tedious process, but if done properly, the research we do makes a difference. Knowledge is created—knowledge people care about and can use.

More specifically, I enjoy working with my colleagues on the UW Vegetable Extension Team. It has been a lot of fun to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team (soil science, weed science, entomology, and plant pathology). Many of us started around the same time, and within a few years, we have developed a very strong Extension team that has been able to win proposals, address critical issues facing Wisconsin vegetable production, and provide Extension programming to a range of clientele such as large producers, fresh-market producers, organic producers, and the Amish. I think this really demonstrates the value of finding people you enjoy working with and then building collaborative relationships.

Ruark with National Guard

Soil Horizons: Would you encourage others to work in soil science?

Ruark: Soil is where all the action happens—interactions between biology, chemistry, and physics and interactions between air, water, plant, and minerals. It’s directly involved with the biggest issues our planet is facing—food, energy, and climate change. Be a soil scientist and save the world. Or at minimum, you’ll be able to explain to your neighbors why their garden tomatoes look so bad.

Soil Horizons: Can you tell us about the work you did recently with the National Guard?

Ruark: Recently, I had a great opportunity to provide training to the Wisconsin Army National Guard, who were being deployed on an agricultural mission to Afghanistan. I conducted 90-minute field presentations on soils and fertilizers. They were a great group and asked great questions.

Of course, the soils they will be experiencing in Afghanistan are far from the Mollisols of southern Wisconsin. When I started preparing my presentation, I did not know much about the soils or agriculture of Afghanistan. I landed upon an excellent website assembled by the University of California–Davis filled with great resources on Afghanistan—generalized soil maps of Afghanistan, information on crops grown, and information on fertilizer use and availability. This allowed me to focus on specific issues they will be facing.

When I think about the challenges that these men and women will have to encounter (both agronomically and politically) to help improve soils and agriculture, it really makes my job seem incredibly easy in comparison.

This story first appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of Soil Horizons.

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