Solutions in soil
Scientist Judy Daniels digs deep to help Colorado's new crop of industrial hemp farmers.
Geospatial soil scientist Judy Daniels, Ph.D., doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty in the name of improving the environment.
“Soils are the determining factor for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the biodiversity of an area and more,” says Daniels, founder and CEO of Soil Sage LLC and founder and chief technological officer of Terrestrial Systems LLC. “One teaspoon of soil contains more organisms than there are human beings on this Earth, directly relating soil to overall ecosystem health.”
After graduating from Colorado State University-Pueblo in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science in biology and environmental health, Daniels wanted to learn how to use technology to describe complex environmental processes for practical problem-solving.
She enrolled in Metropolitan State University of Denver and within a year earned a B.S. in geographic information systems and remote sensing.
“I’ve always loved maps, so it is easy for me to see the world spatially,” she says of learning to use GIS as a tool for analyzing data to examine space and organize layers of information into maps. “Everything can be broken down into a layer. Our surroundings are simply one layer on top of another.”
Daniels started her career as a contractor with the National Park Service through Colorado State University as an environmental scientist and GIS manager. Using GIS, she mapped invasive species in national parks across the country, studied their movement patterns and impact on native species, and worked with the Soil Resources Inventory to map, preserve and protect the soils as a park resource.
Now, Daniels’ work with soil has positioned her on the front lines of a new American agricultural commodity predicted to be worth $2.6 billion by 2022: industrial hemp.
A provision in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill passed last December removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, resulting in tens of thousands of acres of land being dedicated to this once-outlawed industry.
Colorado farmers had a head start on the hemp boom thanks to the 2012 passage of Amendment 64, which in addition to legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana legalized industrial hemp, defined as a variety of cannabis with less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the plant’s psychoactive ingredient. Last year, Colorado farmers dedicated 21,578 acres to hemp cultivation, according to Hemp Industry Daily. By the end of 2019, Department of Agriculture projections put that figure at roughly 50,000 acres.
Even with the head start, Colorado farmers are realizing there is a lack of research to draw from as they attempt to benefit from this new crop option, Daniels says.
“Hemp is being grown in large swaths outside in diverse soil conditions,” she says. “Understanding hemp’s moisture and nutrient use will be key to long-term success.”
Daniels is working with 10 farmers across Colorado and in a personal research plot comprising 20 varieties of hemp in the San Luis Valley.
“Hemp is an amazingly diverse plant. It is a wonderful resource for food, fiber and fuel, and it can even be used as a substitute for plastic,” she says.
Daniels is excited to help Colorado farmers find success growing hemp and predicts that using regenerative agriculture methods will improve the soil health. She also hopes her use of GIS in this booming agricultural commodity helps others develop an appreciation and awareness of soil as a vital resource.
“Soils are not easily understood,” she says. “GIS allows us to address issues like erosion by wind and water, and soil-salinity issues, by creating a visual representation, which provides a strong foundation for telling the soil’s story.”