Illustration by Mary Crooks

    Jerry grew up on a farm in the high plains of Colorado—“the home of the Dust Bowl,” he says.

    Although he was familiar with agriculture and crops such as wheat and sorghum, it wasn’t until Jerry was in his late twenties that he realized “soil science” was an actual field of study.

    He was pursuing his undergraduate degree in philosophy when he became an intern at the Land Institute. Learning about perennials and their possible agricultural and ecological uses “was a total game-changer for me,” Jerry says. “It was an epiphany.”

    It was a completely different way of thinking about science and ecology, Jerry says. “The way we think about the science of agriculture—crop rotation, fertilizer, pesticides—that’s the software. The plants, they’re the hardware. We’re usually thinking of developing new software for old hardware. We’re trying to put Photoshop on a Commodore 64! By developing and expanding use of perennials, we could design new hardware.”


    “Working in native grasslands. I work with specialists who study insects, microbial diversity, chemistry. . . . My wife studies nematode populations. Working from such different perspectives, I am constantly reminded how well the [native grass] ecosystem works—how elegant, how beautiful.”


    “Sitting at a desk, writing a paper.”

    Jerry says the work of publishing can be tiring. It often takes a year to have a scientific article published in a magazine like Science. Even top scientists like Jerry must revise their work. “Everyone gets rejected,” he says. Scientists submit their article, revise it, submit it again, and make new revisions. The cycle repeats until the paper is published.

    Although he usually prefers to be in the field, studying soil and plants, Jerry realizes that publishing and communicating with other scientists is very important to his field of study. “You gotta do it,” he says.


    “The study of the Earth.”


    Agriculture has been identified as one of the greatest manmade threats to ecosystems on Earth, and Jerry believes annual plants like rice, wheat, and corn are a big part of the problem. “Annual plants, which die every year, have very shallow root systems. Annuals usually need more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, because their root systems do not retain nutrients very well,” he explains.

    Perennial plants like sunflowers, on the other hand, bloom every year without having to be replanted. Jerry explains: “Perennial plants have incredibly deep root systems. They can extend dozens of feet into the soil. This anchors the soil, limiting erosion and runoff. It also allows perennial plants to survive periods of little precipitation. Their roots extend so far, they can access water that plants with shorter root systems simply cannot.

    “When you apply fertilizer or pesticides on an annual plant, you always lose it. It seeps into the soil, into the groundwater. It washes away as runoff, which is pollution for rivers. . . . With perennials, what you put in [water, nutrients], stays in.

    “Perennials increase water infiltration, which means they retain water in the soil and texture of the plant. They also have decreased transpiration, meaning that perennial plants are less likely to lose water vapor into the atmosphere. The long root systems of perennial plants, as well as their lower rate of transpiration, mean that perennial crops do not need to be irrigated as often as annuals.”

    With perennials, “Weeds are just not a problem,” says Jerry.

    Jerry and his colleagues are working to develop perennial versions of such familiar crops as rice, wheat, and sorghum. Switchgrass, a perennial grass, is one of the plants considered for biofuel, an alternative to fossil fuel.

    Plant breeders are working to show “proof of concept,” or proof that perennial crops can be reliable and profitable. “The benchmark is going to be a yield of one ton per hectare, with little to no environmental damage,” said Jerry.


    “Remember to study entire systems. . . . Sometimes soil scientists limit themselves to just one area of study: the chemistry of the soil, or the biology, or the ecology. Try to see the whole picture.”


    “Garden! Understand how plants converting sunlight, water, and oxygen into simple sugars drives almost everything on the planet! It’s such an unbelievable process, and it’s so poorly understood even by scientists.”

    Soil Scientist: Jerry Glover
    Jerry Glover is an agroecologist.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    agroecologist Noun

    person who studies the role of agriculture in the environment.

    alfalfa Noun

    legume that is often used as feed for livestock.

    annual Adjective


    benchmark Noun

    standard of achievement against which others are measured.

    biofuel Noun

    energy source derived directly from organic matter, such as plants.

    cereal Noun

    type of grain, including wheat.

    consensus Noun


    crop researcher Noun

    person who studies the characteristics and behaviors of different agricultural crops over different time periods, places, and climates.

    crop rotation Noun

    the system of changing the type of crop in a field over time, mainly to preserve the productivity of the soil.

    crop yield Noun

    material produced by a farmer or farm, usually measured in weight per hectare.

    Dust Bowl Noun

    (1930-1940) term for the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada when severe dust storms forced thousands of people off their farms.

    ecology Noun

    branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Types of Ecology
    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    epiphany Noun

    sudden revelation or insight.

    erosion Noun

    act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: erosion
    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    fertilizer Noun

    nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

    game-changer Noun

    event that changes the outlook or perspective of a person or group of people about a topic.

    genetically modified organism (GMO) Noun

    living thing whose genes (DNA) have been altered for a specific purpose.

    genome Noun

    set of genes, or chromosomes, that hold all the inherited characteristics of an organism.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    Green Revolution Noun

    the increase in food production due to improved agricultural technology.

    groundwater Noun

    water found in an aquifer.

    Encyclopedic Entry: groundwater
    hardware Noun

    computer machinery.

    hay Noun

    fresh or dry grass used to feed livestock.

    hectare Noun

    unit of measure equal to 2.47 acres, or 10,000 square meters.

    Human Genome Project Noun

    international project to study human DNA, and determine the sequences of the three billion base pairs that make up the human genome.

    hybrid Noun

    the end result of two different sources of input.

    intern Noun

    person who works or volunteers at a business in order to learn and gain experience.

    irrigation Noun

    watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

    Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation
    Land Institute Noun

    organization working to develop an ecologically stable agricultural system with a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.

    livestock noun, plural noun

    animals raised for sale and profit.

    maize Noun


    microbial Adjective

    having to do with very small organisms.

    narrative Noun

    story or telling of events.

    nematode Noun

    microscopic, worm-like animal.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    nutrient rate trial Noun

    experiment that tracks the way different soils and plants absorb and use different nutrients.

    perennial Adjective

    continual, perpetual.

    pesticide Noun

    natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)

    philosophy Noun

    the study of the basic principles of knowledge.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    Plains Indian Noun

    one of many people and cultures native to the Great Plains in North America.

    plant breeder Noun

    person who studies the inherited characteristics of plants, and works to combine and reproduce them using hybrids and genetic engineering.

    precipitation Noun

    all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation
    rice Noun

    grass cultivated for its seeds.

    root system Noun

    all of a plant's roots.

    runoff Noun

    overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: runoff
    seep Verb

    to slowly flow through a border.

    software Noun

    electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.

    soil Noun

    top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

    sorghum Noun

    type of grain.

    switchgrass Noun

    tall grass native to North America.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    transgenic Adjective

    organism that contains genetic material from another species.

    transpiration Noun

    evaporation of water from plants.

    undergrad Noun

    undergraduate. college student who has not graduated, as oppossed to a graduate student pursuing a master's or doctoral degree.

    vapor Noun

    visible liquid suspended in the air, such as fog.

    water infiltration Noun

    process by which water on the ground surface or atmosphere enters the soil.

    weed Noun

    unwanted plant.

    wheat Noun

    most widely grown cereal in the world.