OSU Brings on Soil Water Quality Specialist

On-the-ground experience coupled with an academic focus on water quality were deciding factors in selecting Abigail Tomasek as Oregon State University’s first Soil Water Quality Extension Specialist.

Tomasek, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in civil engineering and a master’s degree in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering from the University of Texas, started January 1 in her new position within Department of Crop and Soil Science.

“We are really excited to have Abigail here,” said Crop and Soil Science Department Head Tom Chastain. “I think the industry across the state is going to like her.”

The position is one of four that OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences created from an Oregon legislative initiative on water quality lawmakers adopted in the 2019 session. The other three are in the college’s Biological and Ecological Engineering Department.

Tomasek’s academic experience includes a strong engineering background, Chastain said, with a focus on water quality as it relates to soil. Her Ph.D. thesis, for example, was on the denitrification in agricultural surface waters. Tomasek’s on-the-ground experience includes work on water quality issues in Peru, initially with the Peace Corps and subsequently while a postdoctoral scholar at Purdue University.

“We are very excited about that sort of history,” Chastain said. “We are interested in people who have had certain big-picture experiences like going to Peru and doing a postdoc there and serving in the Peace Corps. Some of our best Extension people over the years have been Peace Corps volunteers, because they got this experience of working with farmers, working with people, an experience that you don’t always see with young people coming out of school.”

Tomasek said her experiences in Peru showed her that she enjoyed working with farmers and helped steer her toward Extension.

“When I started working in Peru, I realized that I really did enjoy going and talking to farmers, understanding their stories and trying to understand how to balance productivity and sustainability,” she said.

“I am not from an agricultural background, but I found that I really enjoy working in agriculture,” she said.

Tomasek, who has statewide Extension duties, said her initial plans are to get to know the people who make up Oregon agriculture and get a feel for their water quality issues.

“Originally, my idea was to travel to different parts of the state,” Tomasek said, “but that will be hard to do with COVID. But I am still hoping to find some ability to travel around and get to know people.”

Tomasek has no teaching duties and will focus solely on research and extension, Chastain said. “She will be developing and doing research and maybe modeling and onsite monitoring and mapping projects,” he said.

Chastain said the position is designed to help, not hinder growers.

“There are plenty of people telling agiculturists what is wrong in regard to pollutants found in water and other issues,” Chastain said. “Our goal is to work with producers on ameliorating known problems and avoiding future problems. The position is a service to agriculturists.

“You know the old saying, ‘We are from the government. We are here to help?’ In this case, with this position, we really are,” Chastain said.

Tomasek echoed that sentiment, saying that she hopes to work with producers in a way that both increases profitability and improves water quality by balancing productivity with sustainability. “I will be trying to target issues of concern to growers in a way that helps them meet their needs,” she said.

She added that she is excited to be moving to Oregon.

“I’ve lived in the middle of the U.S. most of my life,” she said. “I have never lived close to the mountains. I’ve never lived close to the coast. I really like backpacking and hiking and have always had to travel to those things. So, when they said the coast is forty-five minutes away and the mountains are an hour away, I got really excited.”

Tomasek encouraged producers to connect with her if they have soil water quality issues they would like to address. She can be reached at Abigail.Tomasek@oregonstate.edu.

Article by Mark Lies

Source - Oregon Seed Magazine - Volume Twelve - Number One - Winter 2021