UNM biologist awarded grant for researching role of compost in arid rangelands
Dr. Eva Stricker, a research assistant professor in the UNM Department of Biology, was recently awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture/USDA for her research examining the role of compost in dry rangelands and microbial communities on soil and plant performance.
“I’m currently investigating how compost and other organic amendments can be used to restore dry rangelands, connect waste to productivity, and build resilient rural communities,” she said.
Stricker said she is interested in arid rangelands because global warming is leading to a hotter, more variable climate, making an already dry environment in arid rangelands more susceptible to droughts and extreme events related to erosion and flooding.
“It’s only going to get more challenging with extremes and hotter conditions, so if we can do anything to hold the water in the soil instead of having it evaporate and runoff we’ll build a little more resilience. Hopefully compost and other organic amendments are one way of doing that,” she said.
“The nice things about compost is that it’s taking a waste, taking organic material, and transforming it into a valuable resource.”
While this research is also being explored in California with promising results, Stricker said she and local tribal entity are eager to see how it will work in a more arid climate like New Mexico. Currently, she has three field sites around the state containing controlled sections of 8 meter by 8 meter squares and is looking to compare two types of composts every year.
“Looking at soil health more broadly you can really understand how something like an organic amendment can help producers build resilience, use waste productively, and grow healthier food. Understanding if these organic amendments are going to work effectively in the more arid environments of New Mexico is key,” she said.
Stricker said she is starting small because there are a couple of risks adding new nutrients to a system that tends to be low on nutrition.
“We’re adding very little compost– about a quarter of an inch thick,” Stricker said. “We don’t want to scale up until we know what might happen.”
Stricker is also seeking to understand more about microbial communities in compost and how it will affect native microbial communities through this project.
“How important is matching microbial communities? Plant microbe matching is a much broader scientific question we’ve been wondering about in microbial ecology for a long time and now we are beginning to have the tools to answer those questions,” Stricker said.
Another question she is hoping to answer through the project concerns the best time to apply compost in dry rangelands. Currently, Stricker is conducting field experiments and then will do lab work in the fall and winter. As part of that, she will analyze initial results next year and continue to monitor the field sites for two more years.
Additionally, she is comparing commercially available soil tests to her project’s more intensive metabarcoding results to help work directly with ranchers to make her findings as useful as possible for producers.