Department of Plant and Soil Science
Putting Crops to the Test Thwarts Pollution
And Fred Magdoff's Career Stands the Test of Time
- By Cheryl Dorschner
Right now, across the nation’s Corn Belt, planting season is roaring like a John Deere tractor; with 75 percent of corn already planted, and farmers expect to plant more acres than they have since the Great Depression. Weather conditions serendipitously allowed for early planting across the Midwest in the spring of 2012.
As late spring moves across the United States, and corn plants reach about a foot high, farmers will walk among their rows taking core soil samples to measure nitrogen levels.
The “Magdoff nitrate test” is the standard from Nebraska to Vermont and wherever corn grows. This pre-sidedress nitrate test changed the method and timing of soil testing in the early 1980s, became the benchmark for comparing any new procedure and has saved farmers countless dollars and wasted fertilizer.
And now, we realize an even greater benefit, the Magdoff nitrate test prevented enormous water pollution in the past 30 years and is one of the principle tools to counteract the nation’s water quality problems.
This practical test devised by University of Vermont Emeriti Professor Frederick Magdoff “is undoubtedly his most famous scientific accomplishment,” says Ray Weil, University of Maryland professor and co-editor with Fred of the book, “Soil Organic Matter in Sustainable Agriculture,” published in 2004.
However, in his 34-year career in plant and soil science, Magdoff's work has set the standard by which others are measured, changed scientific thinking, pioneered whole system farm and food production practices and advocated for planting methods that cause less environmental harm. UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Tom Vogelmann cited these accomplishments before the annual gathering of alumni and friends on May 12, as he presented Magdoff with the Robert O. Sinclair Cup for career achievement.
Magdoff's book “Building Soils for Better Crops,” co-authored with Cornell University’s Harold van Es, is the soil science bible for students, teachers and farmers. In its third edition it’s the most widely used soil science textbook.
His work on soil pH buffering capacity corrected how scientists understood, described and taught about this phenomenon. “Soil pH Buffering Revisited,” published with one of CALS’ favorite son’s, the late Rich Bartlett, turned conventional wisdom on its head and also helped our understanding of forest soils’ response to acidic deposition.
While he carefully approached research and teaching in the context of good science, when it comes to sustainable agriculture, he is a strong advocate. While he led Northeast SARE (Sustainable Agriculture, Research & Education) for nearly two decades, he changed many farmers’, students’ and academicians’ minds about the importance of a whole-systems farm approach. It is no coincidence that Vermont leads the way in sustainable agriculture.
Magdoff mentored some of Vermont’s best known and successful CALS and UVM Extension professionals including Vern Grubinger who followed him as coordinator of Northeast SARE and agronomist Heather Darby – both credit Magdoff for giving them direction in their early years.
He came to UVM in 1973 with degrees in history from Oberlin College (1963) and soil science from Cornell University (1965 and 1969). He was UVM plant and soil science department chair from 1985-1993. From 1998 through his retirement in 2007, he was the first coordinator of Northeast SARE. During this 34-year career, he garnered $5 million in extramural funding and published articles in 70+ journals – many seminal papers on pH, aluminum, phosphorous and organic matter in soil.
Fred Magdoff has already been distinguished by his peers – among his awards, he was named a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy in 1995, received a research award from the Northeast Branch of the American Society of Agronomy and Soil Science Society of America in 2004 and earned CALS Hubert "Hub" Vogelmann research and scholarship award in 2006.
"In the field of soil science, the University of Vermont is well known because of Fred Magdoff," Vogelmann said. "And as the nation grapples more than ever before with soil and water quality issues, the name “Magdoff” will be to soil what the name “Rodale” is to organic."