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A sweet solution: Retiring professor helped beet farmers save crops

Joseph Giles' expertise sends him digging in the dirt. But the soon-to-be retired soil scientist at North Dakota State University may best be remembered for research that took him above ground. It was in the early 1980s when many of the Red River...

Joseph Giles' expertise sends him digging in the dirt.

But the soon-to-be retired soil scientist at North Dakota State University may best be remembered for research that took him above ground.

It was in the early 1980s when many of the Red River Valley's sugar beet growers grew concerned that too many of their beet seeds weren't spouting from the region's rich soil.

Some farmers were seeing as little as half their seeds sprout leafy tops, said Giles, who's retiring in June, after 26 years in NDSU's Department of Soil Science.

The common theory was that spring rains were forming a top-soil crust that the young root tops couldn't penetrate.

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In test plots, Giles said, he found some crusting, but nothing to explain the amount of crop loss in area fields.

"You can't bring those things into the lab," he said. "You've got to go out in the field.

"I've been out in the mud and rain," he said. "I always enjoy working in the outdoors."

The 62-year-old researcher's drive to solve the mystery led him to take a look at a farmers' planter.

He connected the planter to a field simulator and found that it was skipping the release of some seeds and cracking others.

"We were able to show that some adjustments with the planters could make a big difference and that really interested growers," Giles said inside his office in NDSU's Walster Hall.

"Guys started wanting their seeders tested," he said.

Since 1982, Giles has done just that. Every spring he travels the region with a field simulator and inspects farmers' sugar beet planters.

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The program has grown to include about 680 inspection appointments this year, he said.

"That program has been a big help," Glyndon, Minn., farmer Kirk Watt said. "I know when I go into the field my planter is ready to go," Watt said.

While at NDSU, Giles has written more than 50 papers to help farmers better understand the soil they depend on for a living.

The associate professor said he'll miss working with farmers and teaching NDSU students.

Still, Giles said he and his wife, Sue, have no plans of slowing down in retirement.

They plan to move from Fargo, visit seven grandchildren scattered throughout the country and then possibly missionary work in China, he said.

Brigham Young University, Giles alma mater, has asked the Fargo couple to accept a nearly year-long teaching mission in China beginning in September.

"We see ourselves being homeless for a few years," he said. "We just look at it as an opportunity to see more of what's out there."

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Readers can reach Forum reporter

Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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