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Chang Lian

Summer School Course—Self-learning 101

        No credit, no preliminary tests and no whatsoever final projects, just for the pure joy of obtaining new knowledge I am interested in— along with other studious Cornellians who spare no time crunching books in summer school during the day, I am taking self-learning courses “engineering statistics” and “Introduction to macroeconomics”, in the evening after finishing my whole day’s work as an intern. The zealotry of delving into numbers and arcane mathematical equations, such as Weibull distribution which can potentially cause tremendous anxiety among many people, actually does not come out of nowhere. I love doing something quantitative in my life, something that can make me see things clearer about this world via numbers and functions. For a quite long time, I have had a weird feeling that something is missing in my daily life during the passed spring semester and I just could not figure out what it was. But one day, when I unintentionally glanced across my Schedulizer class arrangement, I suddenly realized that all courses that I had been taking so far, since the very first semester I transferred here at Cornell, none of them have any strong relationship with math: the only things I remember used were addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—even square root was not involved!

       Therefore, statistics, at engineering level, comes as rescue! And in fact, what empowers you to engage in self-learning, in contrast with teaching-learning practice checked by obligations such as assignment and grading during the semester is quite different. The pure pleasure of finding things out, in my regard, is the utmost rewarding experience in self-motivated learning. Exploring the domain where you are really infatuated at is something that no other subjects can replace, and in a self-customized “research” journey, you are your boss. An even more compelling aspect is that the depth of thinking and discussion featuring in that particular subject can be overwhelmingly interesting to you compared with the limited energy and time allowed during the busy semester.

         Self-learning is a component of self-improvement. It enables you to get better prepared for tomorrow’s challenge through a unique way that no others methods are comparable. In addition to the engineering statistics, I am also taking macroeconomics at an intro level. Why bothering learning economics while working as an intern in soil nutrient management research? Well, internship, as I believe, not only can strengthen your skills and knowledge in one particular aspect, which most of us tend to appreciate in the first place, but also may direct you towards a new direction, for me is agricultural economics–a direction full of challenges and excitement. This revelation has come to me a little late—I only have one more year at Cornell, which means that adapting to a new field, though somewhat related to my current knowledge base, is indeed not easy. Therefore, self-charging during the evening is the only choice I have in order to catch up with others in the intermediate level-macroeconomics course in the future. Besides, I am looking forward to applying for graduate school in the fall, whose requirement includes macroeconomics. Shedding sweat in a hot summer evening is much better than shedding tears after being rejected.

          Live and learn.

North Eastern Branch Meeting–Agricultural Sciences Major—a New Vision for Our Beloved Earth

Portland, Maine (Lobster Eating Place)

Portland, Maine (Lobster Eating Place, I am in the center with NIKE)

There are few countries in the world like the United States, whose farming population is well below 2% while at the same time achieving astounding productivity. Ever since the beginning of the last century, this percentage has been going down dramatically in the New World, the adoption of modern technologies such fertilizers and machineries, which culminated during the Green Revolution, have certainly served as a boost for this trend. However, as our world is confronted with more and more environmental problems, water shortage and quality degradation, pollution, energy crisis, soil erosion, agriculture–one of the major sources of these dire problems has been regarded by emerging generations as the solution for a better life on earth.

In this year’s North Eastern Branch Meeting of CSSA, ASA, and SSSA (Crop Science Society of America, Agronomy Society of America and Soil Science Society of America), faculties and extension educators talked about how the establishment of majors, such as Cornell’s Agricultural Sciences (AgSci) and Penn State’s Agro-Ecology (, can meet this demand from young people—going back to agriculture and make a difference to the world. Such enthusiasm of engaging in agriculture has been well reflected in our fall semester enrollment—more than doubled since last year. What is even more inspiring that one the very same day when we were in the meeting, I read an article from USA Today, entitled “On tiny plots, a new generation of farmers emerges”. It said now that the tide has begun turning direction, though still insignificantly for the USDA’s statistics, but there is a consensus in the farming world that “there is something afoot”. People turn to agriculture, particularly organic agriculture, not only for the money, they are actually “creating something real—the food people eat—and at the same time healing the earth”. Accompanied with this emerging interest towards agriculture over the years, is the visionary advocacy from the academia.

Our AgSci major creates an interdisciplinary environment that fosters a new vision toward the diverse aspects of agriculture. Students are able to self-assemble courses fit for them related to agriculture (which is just encyclopedic as culture) with unprecedented width of choices. I have benefited a lot from our major; it grants me with a brand new perspective for agriculture, which I deem very important for the country where I come from—China, and also our beloved earth.

Nevertheless, the more choices you have, sometimes the more perplexed you become. As reflected by a couple faculties in Penn State and other schools, an interdisciplinary major, especially when it is too young ( Penn’s was founded in 1998 and ours was 2006), may potentially have its students confused about what exactly they want to do after graduation. Students need more direction as those emerging young farmers in their tiny plots whose start-up error margin (the buffering capacity of the job that allows you to make mistakes) is small. Time is precious.

North Eastern Branch Meeting–Grass, a Solution to the World?


Our beautiful world is confronted with unprecedented challenges: energy shortages, water contamination, food crisis, soil erosion, global warming…you name it. Anyone of those, if not addressed properly, would lead to very dire consequence for human beings. Changing mindset and discovering new technologies to solve the problem would always be a good idea, the archetypical example of this is our effort to find new genes for higher yield, better water usage and disease resistance. The other side of the coin is to optimize the way we manipulate the tools that are already in our hands. In this year’s North Eastern Branch Meeting of SSSA, CSSA and ASA (Soil Science Society of America, Crop Science Society of America and Agronomy Society of America), researchers cast their vision to a broader usage of grass—not just the lawn in your home yard.

Good agriculture will not be achieved by single approach, integrated solutions are always preferred, just like eco-balance can not depend solely on animal or plants, and you have to take all players into account. Grass is like a service facilitator, a linkage that can help generate integrated approach to the problems we face. Farmers using cover crops, such as red clovers, generally find their nitrogen leaching problem during the winter time is mitigated dramatically; crops ploughed down in spring may help them save precious dollars on fertilizers. Ground water quality, due to less contamination from nitrate, becomes more usable. In the meantime, water above ground is better managed by cover crop since they can no longer carry away nutrient rich topsoil.

You may wonder what people are doing with grass for generating energy when the petroleum price has fallen back to $2.7 per gallon. Well, many experts have predicted that our peak oil production worldwide have passed in 2008, a heavy oil dependent energy in the future is definitely non-sustainable. The current relatively low fuel price comes from the world financial meltdown, whose plummeting demand makes the price tag more appealing to the public. Grass, a very efficient energy collector, is favored by the industry. Not only having a higher energy production ratio (energy contained in the final product versus energy consumed in the production process) compared with corn based alcohol, they also can be grown on marginal land which is not suitable for food crops. Focusing on a grass-oriented livestock feeding system, will also mean less competition for food with human and better animal health.

However, grass is not the silver bullet, as pointed out by many professors; its relative importance should not be exaggerated. One of the concerns that I had after the meeting was that grass could be apotheosized after corn as the panacea for energy shortage, attracting unproportional and undeserved amount of social economic resource into it. A possible result might be that more arable land is converted to produce grass-based energy and food supply goes down correspondingly. Something too much is not good as well.

Potash matters—Wars of the Titans!

Potassium, along with nitrogen and phosphorus, constitutes the three most essential nutrients for crops. For alfalfa, a predominant legume forage crop for the dairy industry, sufficient potassium in the cell plasm means smooth and effective sugar transportation to all parts of the plant during the harsh winter. Potassium is supplied through potash, its fertilizer form. The origin comes from the burning residue of plant tissue or ash. Though fertilizer prices are generally influenced by energy prices, and the latter has dropped sharply since the outbreak of financial crisis worldwide, the current crude oil price has steadied at about $60 per barrel. This trend of the potash price hike seems irreversible. Within a couple of years, one ton of potash has risen from around $300 to a current price of $900! Without doing careful price forecasting and farm financial management, dairy farmers may face a dire scenario.

My internship research project this summer is to evaluate the current three widely used potassium management recommendation systems and compare their relative effectiveness; generating a feasible solution for alfalfa growers.

The three approaches currently used are:

1) Soil test

Take several soil samples cores from the field of interest and submit them to the soil nutrient laboratory (Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory, or CNAL) for chemical analysis. The result tells how much potassium, expressed in concentration, like parts per million (ppm) or pounds per acre.

2) Potassium saturation (K%)

This also requires doing the same soil chemical analysis, but the focus is on the K’s relative level, in other words, K’s amount versus the summation of potassium, calcium, and magnesium—other major soil cations.

3) Crop removal

This soil test is free! You do not have to do any soil test to calculate your potash needs. Based on the previous harvest, let’s say 5 tons/acre, use the general rule of thumb of one ton of alfalfa can absorb 0.2 ton of potassium. Then you know you need to put 1 ton of K to replenish the loss, right?

Those three approaches all have very long history and are deeply entrenched in our recommendation systems. Cornell has been long dedicated to the first method, generating the Cornell Recommendation every year, which is distributed to farmers for free. This soil test and field trial proves that soil tests work well. The second method, proposed by a group of prominent soil scientists in the 1940s, says that an ideal soil, should have x% of Ca, y% of Mg and z% of K, and of course, xyz may vary a little bit based on years of modifications. The last one, intuitively the most practical one, is believed to be the most useful tool.

Different soil labs and soil consulting businesses may choose different approaches, which makes the whole system pretty chaotic. Basically, if you want to raise your soil’s K% to 5%, as recommended by some consulting firms, the cost will be astronomical (most of the fields here our area is around 2%)! Is it worth it? Maybe, but you also risk ending up with no extra benefit in yield after applying those expensive fertilizers. What about crop removal? Soil will supply some K, but water will carry some away, so you never know. I do hope that we can have some answers by the end of this summer.

A little late as this year’s alfalfa

Almost everyone around me seemed to have a rebirth after completing their last final. Summer comes as people are enthusiastically striving to materialize their ambition. The summer should be used wisely. You can either experience sunshine, beach, and beer; or trade it for intellectual challenges in a meaningful internship–one of the most important differences is that in the former, you will have to pay the bill; and in the latter, you become more intelligent.

My name is Chang Lian, a transfer student originally from China Agricultural University. I am a rising senior at Cornell, majoring in Agricultural Sciences. After reading a couple of articles from others, I think it would be a better start by sharing how I got my internship, and my suggestions for getting a position. Later, I will share fun things about my experiences in the last month, like how a “once-city-boy” got scared to death by a herd of cows!

Internships do not come along without effort. You get what you sow. Though there are many methods of obtaining a position from the Internet, word of mouth still proves effective.

I got my internship by asking our dearest major director, Toni, if he knew anyone doing soil science research who was recruiting undergrads. This is how I started working with the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program, with Assoc. Prof. Quirine Ketterings. I simply sent her a couple of emails confirming an appointment, and went to her office. It was as simple as visiting a friend. I believe that such academic internships, especially on campus, are more easily accessible than commercial ones, which can require rather strict recruiting procedures, and sometimes a face to face interview (for students, skipping classes for an interview might be a considerable cost). For those of you interested in working in academia, your instructor and major director are a great starting point.

This post came a little late, as it is now the first cut for alfalfa. My research tasks involve not only lab and greenhouse work, but field work as well. We have collaborated with two commercial farms for the research of potassium management for alfalfa. Our harvest schedule depends on the farmers. One to three days before their large scale harvest, we visit our research plot and harvest.

I hope that if you’re an incoming Cornell student this fall, you can enjoy our stories in the summer internship blog and, if possible, please comment!

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