Science - December 14, 2017

‘I was the scientist but I could not help’

Lieke de Kwant

No, he did not do a farm internship himself. But he would have liked to have done so, says the German soil scientist Torsten Starkloff, who has come over from his current residence Ås, Norway, for a few days on the account of his defence. During his research in Norway he discovered that many farmers, his father in law included, knew more about the soil then he does.

Torsten Starkloff from Germany graduated with a PhD on 5 December for his study on winter hydrology and soil erosion in Norway.

Proposition: A one-year internship at a farm should be a mandatory part of the education of soil scientists.

‘How do I like the Dutch weather? It is cold! I know that sounds funny from someone who lives in Norway; the country is already covered in snow. But with all the dampness and fog here in the Netherlands, it feels much colder.

My research was on soil erosion problems in the Norwegian winter. During the fieldwork I talked to several farmers, including my father-in-law. They were all very interested and listened patiently at first. But after a while they all became impatient and anxious to interrupt me. There is so much they know from experience. They have been farming their land for years, experimenting with different practices and observing the results. It occurred to me that in a way I was badly equipped to talk to them.

One farmer asked me where he should leave or plant trees along the stream bank and where he should cut them down. I know the theory and physics behind the use of trees to prevent stream bank erosion but I could not answer this precise question. This put me in an uncomfortable position: I was the scientist but I could not help. What the farmers need is advice on what to do, not theoretical explanations of how things work.

A one-year internship is quite long, and students might not have the time or opportunity for that. But if I could do it all over again, I think I would at least use my summer holidays to gain some experience on a farm.’