University of Maryland: Digging Deep for Soil Solutions

A soil scientist who has shared his knowledge for decades with students in UMD classrooms recently returned from a trip to Uganda, where he gave science-based guidance for better yields to 120 small farmers looking to expand.

Ray Weil, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology, volunteered last month with the USAID-sponsored Farmer-to-Farmer program, which brings experts to developing nations to share their knowledge with farmers who lack the technologies available to farmers in developed nations and have little access to information on the most current best management practices.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of a pair of outside eyes being able to help people ‘see the forest for the trees’ and diagnose ways to improve,” he said.

Hardly a novice to African agriculture, Weil has received two Fulbright Awards to support his work on the continent. Among his accomplishments, he developed SoilDoc, a portable “lab in a box” for on-farm soil analysis with support from the Kenya-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Weil also co-wrote the leading textbook in the field of soil science, “The Nature and Properties of Soils.”

The main point of Weil’s most recent trip, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services in partnership with a local NGO named Global Forum for Development, was to consult with farmers in the East African nation who are trying to add cash crops like soybeans and sunflowers to their current subsistence-only crops.

Success with such crops could help farming families significantly improve cash flow, Weil said. “It is really gratifying when I can apply the basic soil science and agronomy principles that I teach in class every day to diagnose a problem in farmers’ fields and come up with practical solutions that will make their lives better.”

After observing local methods and testing soils, Ray found four areas where rural Ugandans could easily increase their yields.