Research farm pioneer Al Black to be inducted into Agriculture Hall of Fame

2014-03-03T12:00:00Z Research farm pioneer Al Black to be inducted into Agriculture Hall of FameBy Jessica Holdman, Bismarck Tribune Farm and Ranch Guide
March 03, 2014 12:00 pm  • 

Al Black, the former U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist who started the cooperative research farm in Mandan, is being inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Black worked as a scientist for 40 years. He was the director of the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan from 1979-93.

Black was the founder of the Area 4 SCD Cooperative Research Farm, which conducts farm field-size agricultural research. He was instrumental in recognizing the need for large scale research and private-public partnerships.

Black died in July 2013 in Colorado. He is survived by his wife and two daughters and his brainchild, the research farm, is now in its 30th year of long-term research on dryland cropping systems.

The farm south of Mandan is on land leased from the family of the late Roy Nelson. Income generated by the farm goes into a revolving fund used for payment of the lease, farming expenses and promotion.

“The establishment of the farm set a foundation for long-term research, which really has a generational impact by providing research opportunities for scientists two or three decades later,” said Mark Liebig, a soil scientist at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory.

One of most important parts about long-term research at the farm is that changes in the soil on the Great Plains happen slowly because of the area’s erratic growing seasons, Liebig said.

“Some important properties, like organic matter content, can take up to a decade to be able to detect a measurable change as a result of a new management practice,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how useful it (the farm) is to scientists as a resource.”

As a soil scientist, Black was known for his research with partner Armand Bauer. The two found nutrient availability, not water availability, had a larger effect on yields. They worked to improve water conservation, crop water use and control soil erosion.

In 2010, Bauer was the first soil scientist inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame. Black will be the second.

The research Black, Bauer and other soil scientists now do at the research farm has applications in the region as well as internationally, in parts of Argentina, Ukraine, Australia and Canada.

“It’s very much a focus on conservation practices that maximize crop diversity while minimizing soil disturbance,” which increases crop yields, Liebig said. “It’s sort of a win, win, win there.”

The principles developed at the research farm, including no-till and crop rotation, have allowed family farmers to use 100 percent of their crop production acres.

In 1984, nearly 6 million acres were left fallow each year in North Dakota. Since then, fallow acres have been reduced by more than 90 percent.

“I think there’s been a strong adoption of practices that have been developed at the farm,” said Matt Sanderson, a research leader at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory.

Because of the farm, scientists have been able to do research on a larger, farmer-size scale, using large farm equipment, instead of small plots.

“That’s what farmers like to see,” Sanderson said. “Once you do things on a real farm, it has more impact. They believe it more ... Without the farm, we would not have been able to verify for actual farm conditions.”

Black’s hall of fame recognition ceremony will be at 1:45 p.m. Saturday in the Main Arena of the North Dakota Winter Show Event Center in Valley City.


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