Lisa Schulte Moore is a professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, focusing on research in sustainability. In 2021, Schulte Moore received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant,” for her work to develop resilient agricultural systems in regards to climate change.
Schulte Moore recently spoke with Iowa Farmer Today about some of her research.
IFT: Your work’s focus has been on landscape ecology and creating sustainable and resilient agricultural systems. What drove you to start in these research fields?
SCHULTE MOORE: I grew up in nature. My great-grandparents owned a farm and I went there as a kid. I’ve just always been fascinated and curious about the natural world. I knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue a career in science to help foster and grow that curiosity.
IFT: Your research helped you receive a MacAarthur Fellowship in 2021. What was that experience like?
SCHULTE MOORE: Surreal. I had no idea that I was even on their radar. When I received that phone call, and my brain was trying to process what was happening, my heart definitely stopped beating for a few moments. But besides just being an enormous honor, it’s hugely validating. Not only is the work that I do collaborative, but it’s one piece of a larger puzzle, one component in a larger, interconnected system, so to receive that fellowship was a ringing endorsement of the work that my colleagues and I are pursuing. It means that someone whose sole job is to evaluate the quality of ideas has examined our work and said, “Yes. Keep doing more of that.”
IFT: You’ve described your work on sustainable agriculture and climate issues as “putting together a puzzle.” What are those puzzle pieces and how impactful are our farmers in putting them together?
SCHULTE MOORE: Farmers are at the center of the puzzle. They are expert producers of corn and soybeans, but we know that level of production has environmental costs — to soil health, to water quality. So the question is how do we leverage that expertise in a way that doesn’t create these environmental externalities?
That’s where the other pieces come in. Prairie strips help keep nutrients on the field, as well as out of waterways. Cover crops protect soil health and prevent erosion. Of course, we know all of this already, so in some ways, the most important piece of the puzzle is creating the right incentive structure so that farmers don’t have to think twice about making these decisions. That incentive structure is not just monetary either, it’s also about having the necessary infrastructure which makes it possible for these pieces to become permanent parts of farmers’ practice.
One of the major infrastructure pieces is energy production. Because even if we incentivized an agricultural system in which farmers produced corn and soy while also protecting water and soil, there’s still an energy problem. Ethanol and biofuels have helped to offset reliance on oil. But we still need to produce renewable energy on farms, so that farmers can close the gap on relying on fossil fuels. Right now, we’re working on new ways to leverage the current agricultural system to generate renewable natural gas, which is one possible way to solve the energy problem.
IFT: What does a completed “puzzle” look like to you?
SCHULTE MOORE: There may never be a completed puzzle — one perfect solution. Instead, we’re focusing on expanding our repertoire of available solutions towards a more sustainable end. Cover crops might work great on one farm, but not another. Farmers without fields that border waterways may opt for a different nutrient reduction strategy than prairie strips. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The closest we can get to a completed puzzle is one in an agricultural system dominated by diversity. Farmers should be able to choose from a diversity of options for what they want to grow, how they grow it, and where they sell it. Soil health and water quality should be important considerations. And there should be a diversity of options for energy, both its use and production.
IFT: When putting together a sustainable agriculture operation, what do you feel is the easiest place for producers to start? Is there a practice being underutilized?
SCHULTE MOORE: I think adding prairie strips to the farm is a great place to start. It’s cost effective, while also improving soil health and keeping nutrients on the field. As an added bonus, it helps improve water quality and habitat for wildlife and pollinators.
IFT: As climate change continues to be a top issue, what is the biggest change in our environmental approach over the years?
SCHULTE MOORE: I think extreme weather events are more commonplace, and agricultural stakeholders are more willing to engage in conversation to enact meaningful, high-impact change. Whether that means planting cover crops or prairie strips, a more diversified crop rotation, or investing in new renewable energy infrastructure, folks are more open to innovative solutions. Against the backdrop of the current energy crisis, too, agricultural stakeholders understand that they need to adapt in order to continue to be sustainable in today’s landscape. So, I would say that the biggest change is a more open, honest approach to climate change. Instead of saying, “It doesn’t exist,” the question is, “What can we do?”
IFT: Are there new practices or research areas that interest you as we move forward?
SCHULTE MOORE: Right now, one major focus of my research is anaerobic digestion through the Grass2Gas project. G2G, is a subset of the C-CHANGE project, focused on assessing whether perennial and winter crops can be more widely used as feedstock for producing renewable natural gas through anaerobic digestion. The program will work with farmers to incorporate perennial and winter crops into their operations. Not only will these additions help to produce a sustainable source of RNG, but they will also bring on-farm benefits such as decreased erosion, improved soil health, and increased nutrient retention. The end goal is to create a market pull for farmers and farmland owners to establish more perennial and winter crops on their land and determine if the energetics make sense to replace usage of fossil natural gas with renewable natural gas developed from herbaceous material.