CARC gains new soil microbiologist, program

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Jed Eberly stands next to his lab’s HPLC, or high pressure liquid chromatograph, Friday morning. When his lab is complete, Eberly will be able to use the machine to separate and identify different parts of mixtures.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Montana State University’s Central Agricultural Research Center killed two birds with one stone when it hired Jed Eberly: It gained a soil microbiologist and the start of a new soil microbiology program.


New hire, new program
MSU has seven agricultural research centers across the state, and an agricultural experiment station on its Bozeman campus. Eberly is the first soil microbiologist to be hired at any of them.

His job description helps to explain why the university set a precedent with his hire.

“Part of my job is to develop a new soil microbiology program for the center,” he said. “I’m going to start by testing microbial products.”

Eberly started as an associate professor in early March, and while planting crop trials has occupied much of his time so far, he has started drafting the new program.

“The overall goal will be to try to improve soil health and plant productivity through the use of soil microbiology,” he said.

Decades of agricultural research overlooked the effects of soil microbiology, according to Eberly, but today’s technology gives scientists a better understanding of what’s happening at the microscopic level.

“Now, I think, is the perfect time to apply this in a practical way,” he said.

An industry has sprung up around the soil microbiology of crops, creating products aimed at improving crops using soil’s tiny residents.

That, in part, is what Eberly wants to focus on: products applied during planting to improve the health of soil using microbes. One example is inoculants, or products that introduce microorganisms into seed to improve the soil health wherever the seed is planted.

The problem, Eberly said, is that much of the science creating those products is based on soil conditions outside of Montana.

“I am starting to test a few trials of commercially available inoculants,” he said. “But I also want to set up a laboratory to do basic research.”

Eberly’s aim is to customize microbial products to the state’s soils.

“I think the challenge has been we’re in very different conditions here,” he said.

Eberly described the Montana’s cold winters and short seasons as harsh.

“I want to develop and find what works here, with these local challenges,” he said. “I envision trying to isolate microbes from this area.”

Eberly also wants the new soil microbiology program to identify differences between microorganisms in the state’s agricultural and native soils. Even with a laboratory, any microbe identification could be difficult.

“They estimate that less than 1 percent of microorganisms can be cultured,” he said. “The only way we know they’re there is through some of the newest technology.”

Potentially all of these tiny life forms could play a role in soil and crop health, so finding a new or different way to culture and identify microorganisms is another goal for Eberly.

Despite the workload of planning a new program, Eberly is happy to have landed his new job.


Changes all around
Eberly had one thing in common with his new employer, even before he applied.

“I was looking for a change,” he said.

The first part of Eberly’s work life was spent as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers microbiologist in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

“Our program there was very diverse,” he said.

When looking for a change, Eberly’s key requirement had nothing to do with diversity, however. He had another word in mind: academia.

“I really wanted an academic position,” he said.

CARC’s location made its opening appealing to Eberly. He spent part of his youth living in Montana, and completed his undergraduate degree in Billings. Now, the rural location was a draw for his own family and their passion for outdoor adventures.

Location was not the only draw. Eberly is interested in teaching, but has no experience, and that fact disqualified him for several openings.

“This was one of the few academic positions I found that didn’t have teaching as a requirement,” he said.

So what does an associate professor with no classes to teach do? In Eberly’s case, a lot. In addition to creating a new soil microbiology program, he has been tasked with continuing one of the center’s traditions.

“The agronomy part of my job is managing the small-grain variety trials,” he said.

For Eberly, this includes not only planting and growing the varieties, but collecting data, too. He’s responsible from measuring everything from how many seeds become plants to plant height and yield.

With the season and the weather, agronomy has been Eberly’s biggest focus so far. Although it’s a far cry from his work in Mississippi, he’s excited to be part of CARC.

“I’ve really been enjoying it here so far,” he said. “It’s really been a learning curve.”

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