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Nebraska Researcher Honored by Onassis Foundation

By Jan Suszkiw
November 7, 2000

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 -- U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist John W. Doran today received the Onassis Prize for the Environment from the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefits Foundation in Athens, Greece, for his research promoting soil health and environmentally sound agriculture, Agricultural Research Service Administrator Floyd P. Horn announced today.

Established in 1975 by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in memory of his son Alexander, the Foundation promotes the sciences, humanities, cultural arts and philanthropic works through educational scholarships, research grants and other programs.

"This award highlights the importance and effectiveness of the environmental research carried out by ARS scientists," said Horn. "The accomplishments of our scientists benefit not only the American consumer and the American farmer, but also people around the world."

Doran was selected to receive the environmental award for scientific achievements including development of a practical test kit and other indicators to help farmers and other agricultural professionals monitor soil health. The kit also is intended to help farmers gauge the sustainability of their land management practices.

Doran works at the Soil and Water Conservation Research Unit operated by USDA's Agricultural Research Service on the University of Nebraska (UN) campus in Lincoln. He plans to donate most of the $250,000 prize money to support training programs for students and scientists. This would help broaden their vision for agricultural missions and help solve social and environmental issues of a global nature.

At Lincoln, Doran researches "farm-friendly" techniques to manage crops and grassland in a sustainable and profitable manner. This refers to practices that allow farmers to achieve acceptable crop yields while preserving their soil's vitality through use of minimum tillage, vegetative mulches, crop rotation systems and other conservation-minded techniques.

Doran's development of the soil quality kit followed more than 10 years of lab and field research around Lincoln, the U.S. Central Plains, and elsewhere. About the size of a tool box, the kit can measure specific soil properties such as water infiltration, pH, electrical conductivity and organic matter content as indicators of sustainability.

Gemplers, Inc., a Wisconsin, company, has sold more than 200 of the kits since 1998 to conservationists, extension agents, land owners and others. The Soil Quality Institute, part of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, has created its own version of Doran's kit, including a training manual for assessing and interpreting soil quality. So far, about 5,000 copies have been distributed.

Doran's practical approach to soil testing has become popular in the Great Plains and western Corn Belt. A few years ago, for example, NRCS team members Mike Sucik, Manuel Rosales and Josh Saunders used components of the kit to evaluate the sustainability of the regions' existing range management and cropping systems.

They're just a few of the many collaborators Doran credits with the soil kit's success. "It's really been a group activity," he noted.

Doran began his career with ARS in 1975, the year he earned his Ph.D. in soil microbiology from Cornell University. He earned a M.S. in soil chemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1969 and a B.S. from the University of Maryland in agronomy in 1967.

He is a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the International Soil Ecology Society, and the Soil Science Society of America, of which he'll officially become President-Elect this month.

Other recipients of Onassis Foundation prizes this year include Greece's Mikis Theodorakis, recipient of a cultural award for such musical works as "Zorba the Greek," and former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who will receive the Onassis prize for "International Understanding and Social Achievement."

Doran and his wife Janet live in Lincoln. Their daughter Karin Perzinksi, her husband Michael, and their two children, also live there.

Scientific contact: John W. Doran, ARS Soil and Water Conservation Research Laboratory, Lincoln, Neb., phone (402) 472-1510, fax (402) 472-0516,