Internships drive passion for research

Saturday, May 25, 2024

By Julia Gerlach

Clarence WinterCongratulations to former Dakota Lakes graduate student Clarence Winter on the successful completion of his master’s degree in plant science from South Dakota State University (SDSU). We wish you well as you embark on your next adventure as an Agronomy Field Specialist for SDSU Extension in Rapid City!

Charting a Course

Clarence says he’s always wanted to work in agriculture.

“Growing up on a no-till farm in western Bennett County, SD, I was always convinced I’d be a crop consultant/sales agronomist or something,” Clarence says. 

But a stop at the career fair during his freshman year as an agronomy student at SDSU put him on another path. 

“That first summer of college, the summer of 2019, I got an internship at ABG Ag Services, a research contracting center in Toronto, SD, where I was introduced to the concept of the research farm,” he says. “It was kind of like small-scale farming but without the financial stress of farming.”

While at ABG, Clarence worked on many of the company’s research trials, doing everything from stand counts to soil and tissue sampling to data collection.

After that first internship, Clarence went on to land internships at USDA-ARS in Brookings after his sophomore year, and then at Pivot Bio after his junior year.

Having decided to pursue a career in research, Clarence knew he’d need an advanced degree, so his next stop was the graduate program at SDSU. It was while he was pursuing his graduate studies that he also worked at Dakota Lakes during the summers of 2022 and 2023.

“I had a keen interest in Dakota Lakes,” he says. “They have the same no-till philosophy as the farm I grew up on, and in a way my family’s farm is permanently indebted to Dakota Lakes because of the research that was done there and some of the practices we were able to adopt because of Dakota Lakes.”

Clarence cites Dr. Dwayne Beck’s pivotal research on no-till systems as having been instrumental in helping his father and grandfather transition from the traditional wheat/summer fallow rotation that was the standard practice for the area up until the farm crisis in the 1980s.

“My dad and grandpa didn’t make the push to go no-till because of the environmental benefits. They just saw that they needed to do something different than what they were doing,” he says.

“Wheat prices were down, interest rates were up, they had three or four consecutive years of no crop due to hail, so they were sitting in a bad situation.”

But having seen a neighboring farm’s early attempts at no-tilling (Dakota Lakes manager Sam Ireland’s family, as it turns out, who were early believers in Beck’s research) Clarence’s dad and grandpa decided they could do it also.

And it was a success. “They had 90-bushel corn that first year, right on the highway, and all of a sudden they had a commodity they could sell at a better price. And I don’t think it would’ve been achievable if it wasn’t for some of the other state employees here in South Dakota, most notably Dr. Dwayne Beck,” he says.

New Horizons

Clarence says his first summer at Dakota Lakes was straight-up farm labor. “I was working with the livestock, putting up fence, helped Sam set up projects, did soil and plant data collection, ran equipment – it was great, because up to that point throughout college I had been kind of removed from being a farm kid,” he says. 

For his second summer, he primarily worked on the soil test phosphorus (P) calibration experiment, data from which fed into his master’s thesis project. 

In his thesis, titled The Relationship Between Soil Biology and Soil Test Phosphorus—A Natural Management of Soil Phosphorus Through Conservation Practices, Clarence evaluated the yield impacts of varying P applications in a no-till environment and also looked at arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and its ability to access total P in the soil.

“We know no-till increases AMF in the soil,” he said. “We also know that P fertility rates don’t take management practices into consideration. 

“This experiment provided evidence that if you have a lot of inorganic P in your soil and you’re applying 200 pounds of MAP (monoammonium phosphate) every year, it’s actually inhibiting the AMF/plant symbiosis. And what we saw is that our low soil test phosphorus (STP) category had a lot higher AMF compared to our medium and very high – three times as much in terms of our five-year average. So, we saw no crop yield difference, which means our no-till P fertilizer recommendations may need to be reevaluated.”

Reflecting back on his experience at Dakota Lakes, Clarence exudes enthusiasm.

“Working at Dakota Lakes was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed working with Sam and all the guys there who have so much knowledge,” he says. “And the fact that it feels like a farm is really rare for a research facility, and I’m really proud I got to be part of that.”

And now the 24-year-old is ready for his next adventure. He says he’s interested in conducting research with the West River environment in mind.

“The university fertility recommendations have mostly been developed for East River conditions,” Clarence says. “But for example, I know on my family’s farm, we plant considerably lower populations, so the rates don’t have to be so high. Or if you look at hybrid fertility data – there’s almost nothing out there that’s specific to Bennett County.”

From his new home base in Rapid City at the West River Research and Extension office, this farm kid turned budding researcher is anxious to settle in and get to work.

“I’m excited for what’s ahead of me. I’m hoping to help SD farmers in some capacity – that’s always been my number one goal.”

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