Sunday, September 19, 2021

Trent Roberts named first UArk endowed chair in soil fertility

• By Fred Miller •

trent roberts
Trent Roberts, associate professor of soil fertility and soil testing, has been named holder of the Endowed Chair in Soil Fertility Research. — UA System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has appointed Trent Roberts the Endowed Chair in Soil Fertility Research. Roberts is an associate professor of soil fertility and testing for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and a soil specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service.

The new chair is endowed by a $2 million Soil Testing and Research Fund established by the University of Arkansas System and financed by money from Arkansas fertilizer tonnage fees collected by the State Plant Board, said Larry Jayroe of Forrest City, chair of the Arkansas Soil Test Review Board.

A portion of the tonnage fees is allotted to the Division of Agriculture for its Soil Test Lab in Marianna and for Experiment Station soil fertility research. The Soil Test Review Board oversees distribution of those funds.

Quality in, quality out

Jayroe said the Agricultural Experiment Station research provides the most accurate and up-to-date fertilizer recommendations in the country.

“I don’t think any other university system in the country is doing the quantity and quality of research that is done by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture,” Jayroe said. “And the research here is continuously backed up by years of verification trials all over the state.

“Arkansas farmers can know exactly the nutrient requirements for their fields, for their crops, wherever they are located. That saves money, protects the environment and provides the best possible chance of success for their crops.

“It’s hard to hold onto good people, and someone like Trent is in high demand,” Jayroe said, citing Roberts’ expertise in soil fertility. “He does a lot of research at the Division of Agriculture’s research locations all over the state, and also works on-farm with Arkansas growers. One of the reasons for this endowed chair is to keep good, quality people like Trent working for Arkansas agriculture and to provide them the resources they need to keep up the good work.”

Mark Cochran, vice president-agriculture for the U of A System, said the endowed chair demonstrates the valued partnership between Arkansas’ agricultural industries and the Division of Agriculture.

“The Soil Test Review Board is a partnership of Division of Agriculture personnel, farmers and agricultural businesspeople that supports the Agricultural Experiment Station soil testing and research upon which Arkansas agriculture depends,” Cochran said.

“Establishing this endowed chair is a recognition of that partnership and demonstrates the degree to which the division’s contributions to Arkansas agriculture are valued. It demonstrates the significance of the division’s soil fertility research to Arkansas’ agricultural economy, helping to keep our state in the top third overall for U.S. agricultural production year after year.

“These endowed chairs are extremely important to recruit and retain the world class scientists that the state depends upon and deserves.”

Jean-François Meullenet, senior associate vice president-agriculture and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, said, “Dr. Roberts is highly deserving of holding the first soil chair in the Division of Agriculture’s history. The work he’s doing continues a long tradition of research and verification that have helped make Arkansas the number one producer in the nation for rice, number four for cotton, and number 11 for soybeans.

“We greatly appreciate the farmers and agricultural businesses who pay the tonnage fees because they know that money comes back to them in new knowledge and technology that makes their farms more sustainable and profitable. And we are grateful to the Soil Test Review Board for establishing the Endowed Chair in Soil Fertility Research that will help ensure we continue a proven track record of research and service to Arkansas.”

Roberts said, “This endowment shows support and faith in our program and allows us to continue the success.”

trent roberts in corn
Trent Roberts, associate professor of soil fertility and soil testing, and graduate assistant Carrie Ortel, examine corn plants for signs of nutrient deficiency — UA System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller

Advancing soil fertility management will depend on using nutrients in the most efficient manner, Roberts said. The endowment will provide resources to take soil fertility research in new directions.

“It allows us to investigate new technologies in soil testing, some of which may be pivotal developments for Arkansas agriculture,” Roberts said.

“A lot of our research focuses on developing new tools that help us measure soil fertility and manage it more efficiently. That includes things like in-season tissue tests and new methods that help us make sure that nutrient deficiency isn’t limiting crop productivity.”

The endowment funds also permit flexibility to investigate new research technologies, Roberts said.

“We’ll be able to see how technologies like x-ray fluorescence or x-ray diffraction may allow us to examine the chemical makeup of solid materials like plants and soils,” he said. “These may give us a timelier way to make fertilizer application decisions, but they are untested for these applications.”

Agricultural production is a big, beautiful puzzle with lots of pieces, Roberts said. “Irrigation, pest control, weed management — these are all important pieces of the puzzle. Soil fertility is also a big piece of the puzzle, a piece of everything that’s needed to grow a crop.

“We continually investigate the relationship between nutrient availability and crop production. We hope that our producers have peace of mind that our fertilizer recommendations are applicable to their crops and production systems. They know that when they follow Division of Agriculture recommendations, they will get a benefit in yield for whatever their crop is. They know the investment in soil testing and fertilizer management is worth it.”

Standing on shoulders of giants

“I appreciate the support we’ve always had from Arkansas growers,” Roberts said. “And I also appreciate the people who’ve come before me who have worked for decades to solve problems related to nutrient management.”

Roberts said his research builds upon work done by Agricultural Experiment Station soil scientists like Rick Norman, Nathan Slaton, Bobby Wells and Wayne Sabbe.

“The success of our program is squarely built on the work these researchers did,” he said. “Generation by generation we’ve been conducting quality research and good outreach to Arkansas farmers. I want to keep it going and help steer it into the next generation.”

Fred Miller is a project/program specialist with University of Arkansas Communication Services. He may be reached at fmiller@uark.edu.

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