By Renee Jean, Williston Herald
With one glance at the yellowed soybean leaves at her feet, Audrey Kalil knows exactly what is ailing them.
"These have spider mites," she says. She takes a closer look, bending down to her knees, turning the leaves this way and that.
"There's a scale," she explains. "I would rate these a four."
While she's surveying the spider mite damage, she checks for aphids, too. Aphids are more a nuisance than anything else — unless present in unusually high numbers — but they can bring a variety of diseases to plants, so they are carefully watched.
Kalil scribbles a note on a clipboard she's carrying with her, then walks a defined distance and pattern to another spot in the field to see what the spider mite population might be doing there. More notes go on the clipboard.
Later she'll send all the data she's collecting from the field to a state database that's used to track the emergence of diseases and pests to warn farmers and help them make management decisions for their fields. She scouts weekly for diseases and pests in McKenzie, Divide, Williams, Mountrail and Burke counties.
After checking for the mites and aphids, she takes up a net, swishing it net back and forth quickly, looking to see if a particular beetle has made its appearance yet. It starts to rain a little harder as she works. She stops a moment to stash the clipboard in the truck before finishing the sweep.
With the rain coming down, she thinks might only visit one more field this time out, a corn field this time. She'll just drop a pin into the smartphone's GPS program and come back later, when the weather is better. However, when she arrives at the corn field, the rain has moved on. She can do a little bit of scouting after all, she decides.
In she goes, into a field of tasseling corn that is slightly taller than she is. This corn field was planted into wheat, she notices. She anticipates fusarium could be a problem later on. The fungus tends to appear more often whenever corn is planted into wheat. It's too soon to check for that today, however. Today it is certain leaf spots and leaf blights she's looking for. Hail and strong winds have shredded the leaves, making it difficult to be certain what she's seeing. She keeps working down the row of corn patiently, checking leaves, running her hands along them gently, holding them up to the sky, brows furrowing as she concentrates.
"Plants do talk, if you know how to listen and what to look for," she tells the Williston Herald ( ).
The wind blows through the corn, and the leaves seem to whisper back as she works.
Kalil did not grow up on a farm, but the plant pathologist interning with the Williston Research and Extension Center is among the dwindling number of students who have chosen agriculture as a career field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there will be a shortfall of 25,000 students in the agriculture industry, but Kalil is one of the 30,000 or so who are joining the less-than crowded field.
Kalil did an undergraduate in microbiology in Minnesota, then worked for a Minnesota company that was using microbial products in lieu of fertilizer to produce nitrogen fixation. The bacteria stimulated roots to increase nutrient uptake, which meant farmers would need fewer inputs.
"The idea is that you can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by using microbial products," she said.
Something about the whole approach fascinated Kalil. She looked into programs that would delve into that more and from there decided to pursue a doctorate in plant pathology. Her thesis was on beneficial microbes.
"The better we understand the pathogens, the less, maybe, we have to use fungicides," she says. "If we can develop plants that have resistance, and we're thinking about ways to improve agriculture, the farmer benefits from all that because the inputs are costly, and the environment benefits because we're not using so much of the things that have downstream effects."
Kalil describes herself as a nature lover.
"This is an area where I can make an impact, and it's interesting," she says. "I'm attracted to the fact that I can help make things better in my small part of the world. I like nature, I like to be in it. And I want to preserve it for future generations. It's a very important issue, but people still have to eat, so you have to balance those two things out."
She also hopes she can be part of bringing better understanding to the public about present-day issues, particularly plants that have been classed as genetically modified organisms.
"It's really important that the wider public gains a better understanding of agriculture," Kalil says. "People are getting really divorced from where their food comes from. It's not the case maybe in Williston, where every other person grew up on a farm, but in other places like Chicago or LA, people are getting such an unrealistic view of how things work."