To some farmers, Lisa Fultz is the face of cover crops.
While she has devoted a great deal of time to researching cover crops and encouraging producers to plant them, Fultz is more than that.
A specialist in soil health, Fultz wants to improve agricultural producers’ soil to grow high-quality crops but also protect the environment.
“What management decisions can we make, what can we do to improve it?” she said. “How do we utilize this resource and maintain this resource? Soil, it’s something that most people don't really think about.”
Promoting soil health helps produce better crops, but it also helps keep soil from running off fields and into streams. Soil and nutrients from fertilizers are one cause of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and other creatures, she said.
“If we work together, I think we can find what works and help improve, so we're not looking at the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico continuing to grow,” Fultz said.
Growing up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Fultz helped in the family’s home gardens and enjoyed seeing the jars of produce and preserves her grandmother put away from their crop. In high school she loved the marching band and her family’s weeks each summer swimming, fishing and hiking at Keystone Lake.
When she started college at nearby Oklahoma State University, Fultz entertained several interests, including zoology and geology, before deciding to go to law school and focus on environmental law. She decided the best undergraduate major for that path would be environmental science.
Early in her studies, Fultz took a soil sciences class and became captivated by the subject. She understood the essential role of soil in food production from working her family’s garden. Also, because of summers at the lake, she knew about Oklahoma’s serious problem of soil washing into watersheds and causing silt to build up and endanger bodies of water.
Fascinated by the subject, Fultz took more soil science classes and became involved in volunteer programs to monitor water quality. By the end of her undergraduate career, she had earned a soil science minor along with her environmental science major, and a professor offered her a chance to earn a master’s degree in soil science.
In graduate school at Oklahoma State, Fultz worked on animal waste management, focusing on finding ways to use swine effluent, or pig sewage, for drip irrigation and other purposes.
“Working with excrement, it was really smelly, but it was a fun group to work with,” she said.
After working as a research associate with a soil chemist, Fultz decided she wanted to run her own research program. She earned a doctorate at Texas Tech University, and in 2014 she joined the LSU AgCenter and teaches classes in the LSU College of Agriculture.
At the AgCenter Fultz joined researchers she knew from Oklahoma State, and they invited Fultz to work on a cover crop project. Now cover crops constitute a great deal of her work.
Cover crops are planted to benefit the soil, not to harvest for a profit. They help build diverse communities of microbes within the soil and help make soils more resilient. Fultz wants to learn exactly how much they help the soil, and she wants to know how to improve cover crops.
“People need to eat, people need clothes,” Fultz said. “We are just trying to design and build those systems so that everybody's getting what they need.”
In addition to improving cash crops, Fultz wants to ensure that soil is conserved for future generations.
“The ultimate goal is to help producers design systems that are economically and also ecologically sustainable,” Fultz said. “We’re trying out conservation practices or best management practices and finding ones that work so that land is still there 50, 100 years from now and is still being productive.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant specialist in LSU AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Lisa Fultz, a specialist in soil health, is an associate professor in the School of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences. Photo by Olivia McClure