By Neal Kerschner - Training the Next Generation of Organic Researchers
What effect does organic farming have on soil’s ability to retain water and the amount of organic matter present in the soil? Abdel Alfahham, a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania working towards his Master of Applied Geosciences, is currently conducting extensive research on the subject at Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial.
The Farming Systems Trial has been actively comparing crop yield, soil health, and economic benefits in organic and conventional farming systems side-by-side since 1981. That makes the study an ideal environmentto test the hypotheses in Alfahham’s thesis, titled “Assessing the impact of organic farming practices on building drought resistant soil.”
Essentially, soil that holds water efficiently will fare much better in a drought than soil that does not. Alfahham theorizes that organically-farmed soil with high organic content will retain water better, particularly in a saturated state, than conventional soil.
Alfahham initially contactedthe Institute as a researcher looking to collect soil samples from FST. However, after learning about Rodale Institute’s approach to both research and education in organic farming practices, he concluded that joining the institute as a research intern could help support his ongoing research while giving him a hands-on learning experience.
Growing up, most of the food that Alfahham ate was fresh, locally-produced, and farm-to-table. Early on, he knew that he wanted to be an environmental scientist in order to help make agriculture ecologically and fiscally responsible through his research. However, it wasn’t until college that he knew he wanted his focus to be on soil hydraulic properties and organic matter. After taking an undergraduate class on the topic, Alfahham found the field and its relatively young research compelling.
Alfahham believes that being out in the field and witnessing the complex and coordinated efforts required to maintain the farm has been the most valuable takeaway from his time at the Institute so far. Being in the field has given him a connection to the land while also providing hands-on experience and education in organic food production.
After Alfahham finishes his master’s program, he plans to continue researching soil water retention, hydraulic conductivity, and organic matter in institutions that emphasize public outreach and real-world impact. Coupled with his research, he would like to educate the public and participate in outreach events, sharing his interest in organic agriculture and soil health.