LeRoy researches soil to improve agriculture

Rachel LeRoy wants to do agriculture the right way.

By Heather Ferngren Morton (MA, English '00)

Photo by Stephanie Gross.

A cross-country road trip brought Vermont native Rachel LeRoy (Environmental Sciences ’02) through Charlottesville in ’96, but it wasn’t until much later that she actually learned of U.Va. “I had always felt drawn to come back to Charlottesville,” she said. When LeRoy decided it was time to buckle down and complete her degree after working, traveling and taking classes at several schools — from community college to Harvard — she looked up Charlottesville on the Internet and discovered U.Va. She decided to apply.

Now looking to graduate two years later, this 28-year-old has received a different sort of education from most University undergraduates. For one, she’s not distracted by social commitments. “I’m ready for [school], I appreciate it, and I want to be here,” she said.

The department of environmental sciences has “been very supportive in letting me do my own thing — independent studies, internships — so that I can get agricultural knowledge out of U.Va. even though it’s not an agricultural school.”

The daughter of dairy farmers, LeRoy is emphatic about doing agriculture the right way. Her current research — determining which crops best relieve soil compaction — reflects her passion for conserving natural resources. “Conventional agriculture in this country historically has not been sustainable,” she said. “Practices don’t conserve soil and water, and there’s over-fertilizing of crops.” One such practice, conventional tillage and plowing, exposes soil to erosion, and, while breaking up the topsoil, actually compacts it even more in the long run.

But crops with extensive root systems, such as alfalfa and clover, naturally break up the soil. LeRoy hopes to determine methods for incorporating these and other crops into crop rotation plans, to keep soil loose and fertile — for centuries.

While such a crop comparison study has never before been published, LeRoy’s not in it for the scholarly recognition. “It’s more important for me to get information to farmers who will use it than it is to be published in a journal, because farmers don’t often read scientific journals.

“I can relate to farmers — as soon as I tell them I grew up on a farm, the walls come down, and they’re far more open to what I have to say.”