Embracing complexity while communicating simply: Phil Small


As an art major at the University of California–Davis, consulting soil scientist Phil Small says he always dug clay much more than the ceramics made with it. But it was a summer job on a farm that really sparked his interest in soil. After graduating with a B.S. in soil and water science in 1977, Small worked as a soil scientist for many West Coast companies and organizations, including the Yakama Indian Nation and Agrimanagement, Inc., before founding his own company, Land Profile, in 1992. Now based in Spokane, WA, Small recently spoke with Soil Horizons about what he’s learned during his long career, as well as his latest fascination: biochar.

Soil Horizons: First of all, tell our readers a bit more about your background: Where did you grow up and how did you get turned on to soil science?

Phil Small

Small: I grew up in Santa Rosa, CA and went to college at UC-Davis, near Sacramento. I started out as an art student under a great ceramicist, Bob Arneson. But I found myself geeking out more on the clay material than the art. Bob found me uninspired. I found art as a livelihood terrifying.

Then, I got a summer job driving tractor at Sagemore Farms in Pasco, WA, with two other UC-Davis students, the Worsham brothers, Ron and Keith. Ron had taken soils classes, and our employer pointedly asked for his counsel alone on the farm. That really made an impression on me. That was two years into my college career: plenty of time to convert from a four-year B.A. track to a 4.7-year B.S. track.

Soil Horizons: Since graduating, you’ve worked for many different agencies and companies. Any big take-home lessons you’d like to share from these diverse work experiences?

Small: The common thread in my diverse soil science engagements has been a professional requirement to embrace soil complexity but to communicate simply, providing a tightly focused, actionable rendering of that complexity.

Having a purpose-driven investigatory methodology and a tight technical report format also helps pare away the complexity and clarify the message. I have Don Jameson, owner at Agrimanagement, to thank for that lesson. (See sidebar for Small’s other big take-home lessons.)

Soil Horizons: Why did you ultimately decide to go out on your own and found Land Profile?

Small: I struck out on my own in the early 1990s because of the very positive feedback I was getting from the environmental soil science clients I had attracted while at Agrimanagement. Being one of many agricultural soil scientists in the county versus being the only ag-aware environmental soil scientist within 200 miles was a major kick. I found that I love to seek out the less populated professional soil science niches. Like biochar.

The first time I went out on my own, though, was in 1978, about a year after graduation. In transition between jobs, I interviewed for a lab tech position with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). My interviewer, a district conservationist, urged me to go into business for myself doing septic system site assessments. Permit support work. It was a better use for my soil classification skills than being a lab tech. The business succeeded, and I caught the bug to be on my own.

Soil Horizons: What kind of work have you specialized in at Land Profile?

Small: We’ve developed a diverse palette of client project services, but the core services have always centered on reclaiming the nutritive value in treated municipal waste or food processing waste to grow forage, food, and forests. Groundwater quality concerns drive this work more than surface water quality. For example, a fair amount of what drives my business is preventing waste-induced anaerobic soil failure points and the anaerobic groundwater plumes these generate.

Then, the rest of our business is quite diverse. There are hundreds of reasons why people call a soil scientist: crop- and plant-related soil problems, environmental property audits, stormwater, septic systems, post mortems on various types of soil failures, expert witness testimony, prime farmland determination, wetland delineation, seep-induced structural failure, land use conundrums…

Soil Horizons: From your LinkedIn profile, I see that you’ve gotten intrigued by biochar. Why is this? How have you been working with it?

Biochar in a person's hand

Small: I teach folks how to make and use biochar. I also teach some approachable methods anyone can use to characterize biochar so as to avoid the classic mismatches that can occur between it and soils (see “Campfire Lessons” article). I was attracted to understanding soil charcoal, or biochar, upon reading the book 1491 by Charles Mann. His story of Terra Preta is amazing—every soil scientist should read it. At the time, I was particularly depressed about the inexorable progression of erosion and chemical degradation of our soil resource. Biochar gives me hope.

We understand so little about charcoal in soils, though, that I feel it will take us generations to learn how to effectively revitalize our soil resource using biochar. Working toward that end lifts my spirits, but beyond that, I am deeply intrigued intellectually. It dawned on me that my soils education—both formal and continuing education—hadn’t included anything about the role of naturally occurring charcoal in soil. This made me want to learn more. Since then, I’ve found that biochar has everything that made me fall in love with soils in the first place: Long, slow changes over time; a diversity of material characteristic; functional complexity beyond what any one individual can grasp; applicability across every continent, yet with dramatic regional differences; and ubiquity, requiring an integrated understanding of all the natural sciences. I am hooked.

Soil Horizons: On top of your consulting work, you were secretary of the National Society of Consulting Soil Scientists (NSCSS) for more than 24 years! Why has giving back to the profession been so important to you?

Small: I got more out of it than I gave. Learning from other soil scientists about how they make a living informed my choices of services to develop and other business decisions. What I learned from my peers kept me in soil science, for which I am forever grateful. I reciprocated as best I could.

There was also a time when the identity of soil science was more in jeopardy than it is today, and much of my motivation was to increase awareness of our profession, and how it fits in with other professions. Mike Singer [a UC-Davis professor and former SSSA president] talked to our consultants one year, and it was a pivotal moment when he pointed out that our International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) was established in 1924 as a formal union under the International Council for Science (ICSU), not as a division of the International Unions of Biological Sciences or Geological Sciences. The point was that soil science stands as an equal among the formal sciences, and no reorganization of university soil science departments is ever going to change that.

This was deeply empowering for us. Besides motivating me to recommit to the profession in my leadership position with NSCSS, I was energized to lead a small group of soil scientists in restructuring the soil science content in Wikipedia. This involved removing soils content from the engineering, geology, biology, agronomic, and geography directory structures, and making a distinction between soil as a material and soil as a resource. We also reanimated the concept of edaphology [the influence of soils on living things] as distinct from pedology [the study of soil as a natural resource]. There was definitely some resistance to our efforts.

But I consider the Wikipedia campaign to be one of the most effective actions I ever took on behalf of the profession to define soil science in the minds of the general public.

Soil Horizons: What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned during your career?

Small: It’s hard to top biochar. But a close second has to be the degree to which plants feed energy into the soil rhizosphere through root exudates. I knew it was a process, but the sheer mass of carbon delivered is pretty astonishing. Also the soil energy cycle, how that symphony plays out between sunlight and soil vitality, is intensely cool.

Soil Horizons: Any final advice for students who want to follow in your footsteps?

Small: Take a technical writing class. Take a bookkeeping and financials class. Take an art class. Get on the soil science certified professional track, and become qualified through coursework to work as a soil scientist. Cultivate your contact network, especially with other qualified soil scientists.

For early career soil scientists, check out our code of professional conduct. It is an amazing document, a solid guide for those who make a living providing objective science as a service.

I’d also say that business is more about people, and the opportunities in soil science are most dynamic at the urban/soil-resource interface. Early career soil scientists, faced with multiple career choices, should look to geographic interfaces, as well as the interfaces between disparate scientific and technical disciplines, for opportunities to apply soil science in developing high-value solutions.

This article originally appeared in the Mar.-Apr. 2015 issue of Soil Horizons.



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