A Conversation with...

Dr. Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University

How did Professor Jane Rickson become one of the UK’s leading soil health experts? Read our interview to find out…

How would you describe your job to someone who is not a scientist or involved in agriculture?
I work as an academic at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire. My job involves carrying out research and teaching on soils and the range of goods and services they deliver to everyone. For example, a healthy soil provides us with food, fodder, fibre and (biofuel); it holds rainfall to prevent flooding and droughts; it provides a habitat for flora and fauna; and it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce global warming and climate change.

Tell me about someone who influenced your decision to work in this area.
When I was studying for my MSc in Agricultural Engineering at the National College of Agricultural Engineering (later Silsoe College), my Professor was Norman Hudson. He was a soil and water engineer who had worked on soil conservation in Africa. He inspired me by showing how scientific experiments can produce results that help farmers adopt cost-effective soil management practices. In turn, the farmers would tell the researchers which practices could be easy to adopt within their existing farming systems, demonstrating that applied research is a ‘two way’ street.

What do you find most challenging about your job/field?
One of the challenges of my job is also an attraction: soils are very complex and complicated. We need to understand how soil ‘works’, from the activities of microscopic bacteria and fungi that live in the soil, to developing measures that farmers can adopt to improve their soil health, to providing advice to Government ministers on how soil should be at the heart of national agricultural and environmental policy. Bridging the gap between fundamental science and practical know-how is a challenge for many soil science researchers.

How has the work you do been affected by/benefited from the partnership with CHAP?
CHAP has improved our understanding of the dynamic interactions between soils, crops and water, through its investment in developing the unique Soil Health Facilities at Cranfield. These pilot scale facilities allow us to recreate a range of soil conditions at near field scale, under controlled environmental conditions. Thanks to CHAP investment, we now have the unique capability of simulating the whole cropping cycle from tillage operations to storing crops post-harvest. The facilities demonstrate soil management issues and their potential solutions, as well as factors affecting crop health over space and time to industry, farmers, agronomists and agrochemical companies. We also have the opportunity to work with a dynamic and multidisciplinary group of CHAP partners from industry and research organisations. CHAP has created links between these organisations that didn’t exist before, providing CHAP clients with innovative research capability and expertise.

What areas/subject fields do you think would make a good case for a new project using CHAP’s Phenotyping and Soil Health capability at Cranfield?

  • Focus on soil-borne pests and diseases, and how these interact with the soil/root interface. For example, it would be beneficial to gain better understanding of how soil management affects the prevalence and activities of soil born pests, diseases and weeds.
  • Development of a decision support tool for root trait selection: Crop selection based on known effective root traits, to introduce required soil-health benefits
  • Creation of guidelines on how to enhance application of biostimulants
  • Development of recognised, standardised protocols that can be used to accurately testing soil health products.

What do you think will be the biggest area of focus/biggest change in the agricultural industry five years from now?
The importance of soil will continue to move up the agenda. Soils will be valued for the range of ecosystem services they provide to society, from food production to water regulation to climate change mitigation. Balancing the demands for higher crop yields without causing soil degradation will be the greatest challenge. This is in the face of: increasing extreme weather events, the withdrawal of some very popular and effective agrochemicals through tighter regulations, higher competition for land use and diminishing arable land area. People will be interested in how soils deliver high food quality as well as quantity (yields), in terms of nutritional value. It is predicted that there will be increasing emphasis on foods with health promoting ingredients (eg natural antioxidants, concentrated vegetal extracts such as phytochemicals, vitamins and fortification ingredients, prebiotics and probiotics). These “functional foods” (eg “nutraceuticals” and ready-to-use-therapeutic foods) are claimed to reduce the incidence of chronic health disorders, so improving human health and wellbeing (and saving expenditure on health services). We need to understand how soil health will contribute to this.

If you had to stop working in this field, what would you choose to do instead?
I have always enjoyed my work overseas, and at one point did consider a career in overseas development with an organisation like the United Nations  or Food and Agriculture Organisation.

What is your biggest achievement to date – personal or professional?
Professionally, it was being part of the Cranfield University team that put together the successful submission to the Queen’s Anniversary Prize (2016-18). This recognised Cranfield University’s soil and environmental data for the sustainable use of natural resources in the UK and worldwide. I was also delighted to be appointed the first female President of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers back in 2018 (marking the Institution’s 80th Anniversary). Personally, it has been bringing up three daughters who have all turned out to be delightful young women (I am biased though)!

What do you do when you aren’t working?
I am a member of our local Book Club and enjoy reading lots of different genres. I also play tennis regularly with local friends, and watch a lot of cricket. I love all sorts of music and enjoy going to concerts with my husband in Cambridge or London. I also like going to the theatre and cinema.

Given a chance, who would you like to be for a day and why?
I would like to be a member of the MCC, sitting outside in the Lords cricket ground Pavilion on a very hot, sunny day, watching England win the Ashes (or World Cup again!).

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.