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Friends and Neighbors Day exposes public to work at Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in ND

Holly Johnson, a scientist at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, explains the cover crop chart she developed with Mark Liebig, a research soil scientist at the lab, on July 19, 2018, in Mandan, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service1 / 2
Cliff Frohlich holds his grandson, Alarik, on Cliff's Minneapolis Moline tractor at Friends and Neighbors Day at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory south of Mandan, N.D., on July 19, 2018. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service2 / 2

MANDAN, N.D.—The colorful chart behind Holly Johnson looks a little like the periodic table of elements, only instead of elements, there are carefully arranged columns of crops.

The chart has been in existence for nearly a decade and is the work of Johnson, rangeland scientist, and Mark Liebig, research soil scientist. Liebig was seeking a more intuitive way to show people cover crop options, and they came up with the chart. The chart shows what type of plant each is, along with its structure and water use. Online, the chart has hyperlinks to more information about each crop.

Though it initially was developed with North Dakota producers in mind, the chart has expanded over the years to include cover crops from all over the world. Now, Liebig notices downloads from Africa, South America and other places far removed from North Dakota.

But on July 19, Johnson wasn't explaining the chart or discussing different options with farmers in Tanzania. She was talking to people right in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory's own backyard.

The laboratory, located just south of Mandan along Highway 6, has been researching agriculture in the Northern Plains for 105 years. For about the past 30, it's hosted a "Friends and Neighbors Day" to bring in community members to learn about and discuss its work.

"We do a lot of research out here and people might drive by and wonder what's going on so this is the time for them to come out and see what it is," explained David Archer, research leader at the lab.

Archer said the lab has held about 30 such days in its history, and the event draws not only farmers and ranchers but also "city people." Most years, he said, 750 to 1,000 people attend.

Friends and Neighbors Day features booths of the lab's own work, like the booth Johnson manned with the cover crop chart. Other USDA agencies also set up spaces, as do the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and several local businesses. Along with learning about research and resources, Friends and Neighbors Day also features education and children's activities.

A collection of antique tractors seemed to be catching the attention of children and adults alike. Cliff Frohlich had a Minneapolis Moline at the event, on which he put his toddler grandson, Alarik. Perry Schlosser, who collects tractors north of Mandan, had seven tractors at the lab for the day. It was the fourth or fifth year he'd brought his tractors.

Schlosser said he enjoys showing off his tractors, and people are interested to see the old way of doing things.

"The people like to look at them," he said. "The kids like to crawl on them."

While there is plenty for the public to enjoy, the real point of the event is to get important information to farmers and ranchers, Archer said.

Liebig said information about the cover crop chart was getting out to everyone at the event, from urban gardeners to those with 10,000 acre farms, giving the lab a "pretty broad spectrum of potential customers."

"A day like today, we've got a whole mix of different people," Liebig said.

The scientists at the lab, Liebig said, are tasked with researching, writing papers and getting published. But their real mission is to make sure people understand the research and can use it.

"It's all about translating science to practice," he said.

A decision aid like the cover crop chart fits the bill in making the work done at the lab and by others easily understandable to the public. At Friends and Neighbors Day, Johnson and Liebig were able to present the chart to people and spread the word about cover crops.

Liebig said anyone who wants to find the cover crop chart can search "cover crop chart." Then, once on that page, he estimates looking at the rest of the Northern Great Plains Research Lab's website to check out what else the lab has worked on in its 105-year history.

"It's a great place to learn," he said.

"A lot of our focus has been on long-term research and ways we can improve both productivity and profitability and maintain the soil and the soil resources at the same time," Archer said.