By Kerry Hoffschneider
As a boy, you could find Patrick Freeze joyfully immersed in the red, clay soils in Hamilton, Texas. One of seven children’s hardworking, blue-collar parents, he learned the art of outdoors early on on his small farm.
“My granddad was a retired fisherman and shrimper. I was originally from the coast of Texas, “he began. “But we gave up the sea life for the soil. We had a large garden and geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys and hogs. We spent the summer months picking Johnson grass out of the neighbor’s maize field. It was good work. “
One started with the soil from the beginning, years later with the unity the land that developed into its roots became Freeze’s life pursuit. “I started my education by doing art and design, but the earth science classes really caught my attention. Working with the soil, it feels so good. It’s inherent in me, ingrained in my hard wiring. “
The topic of soil health is really what’s near and dear to Freeze’s heart. “If I want to calm down, I read a nice soils textbook. It ‘s like sitting with an old friend. “
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Today, Freeze is a soil health scientist at Ward Laboratories based in Kearney, Nebraska. The Washington State University Ph.D. (Fall ’22) is a Fulbright Scholar with USDA NIFA (United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture).
Freeze’s dissertation covers the subject of remediating arsenic and lead in soil and water. “Applying pesticides in orchards in Washington State has contaminated soils in many areas. Looking at ways to reduce lead and arsenic in the soils helps growers and also improves land soldier development. “
Freeze also studied the soil contaminants firsthand in Thailand while earning his Ph.D. Through his Fulbright US Student Program grant, Freeze spent 10 months conducting devastating issues that arise from cadmium contamination in Thailand. He said they were mining zinc for fertilizers and, since zinc and cadmium sit so close to each other on the periodic table, the zinc waste was naturally enriched in cadmium. The area is also conducting monsoons causing flooding every year. The rice fields are flooded as well, which carries the pollutants from the waste to the rice crops. The goal was to improve the quality of the grain as a safe food source, as well as an export product.
“They eat rice four or five times a day, and these crops are contaminated causing a large number of people to experience renal failure and cancers,” he explained.
Freeze noted the technical process of removing cadmium from the soil beneath the shallow water using complex and targeted amendments that bind or remove contaminants.
His global experiences do not stop there. Freeze also traveled abroad to Ghana as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada in Reno. He went with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide to help indigenous African tribes impacted by gold mining.
“That was a gut-wrenching experience,” he said. “The tribal lands were ruined for years.”
If worldwide experience was not enough, Freeze also pursued outer space soil studies. After researching sustainable sources of nitrogen with a scholarship from the National Science Foundation, he was able to obtain another research opportunity with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). He worked with NASA scientists who were studying methane sources on Mars.
However, Freeze’s heart was most fueled by helping people on the frontlines of agriculture. That is why he found himself in a career at a small soil lab in extremely rural central Washington. It was during this time that Ryan Dennhardt, human resources business manager for Ward Labs, discovered the up-and-coming soil talent on LinkedIn.
“I wasn’t really looking for a job,” Freeze admitted. “But they were looking for a soil scientist and I agreed to speak with them. I didn’t realize it was going to be such a comprehensive call. Dr. Ray Ward, Nick Ward and Ryan were all on the call, and then later told me they wanted to fly out to meet everyone. I came out here, and I was immediately impressed. It was kind of like ‘Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory’ for someone in soil science. “
Freeze said it was meeting Ray that solidified his decision. “He is such a different scientist. He is extremely accurate and precise in his methodologies but is also very passionate. He would tear up talking about wanting to help farmers. I haven’t experienced that kind of emotion since working with my travels with AmeriCorps. I knew I had to take the offer and that’s how I ended up here. “
Freeze has been in Nebraska since December and is especially thrilled to be working one-on-one with farmers to inspire them to be more interested in soil health.
“Soil is much more comprehensive and dynamic than a plain-eyed view. It’s all about the physical structure and microbiology. It’s about allowing the natural system to do the work, in effect – mimicking nature, stepping back, and allowing the system to do the work cycling nutrients. “
When a farmer asked Freeze what soil health test they could start out, he said, “I tell them an aggregate stability test. It’s like nature making a pearl. Soil with the best aggregates are well-structured materials that result in harmonious activity in the soil. I would also tell them to look at the chemistry that helps them analyze the inputs they do or don’t need. “
“It’s exciting to see farmers taking the initiative on their own to learn about soil health,” he went on. “For example, I’m working with a grower who doesn’t have a science background, but who has a passion for the science of soil, and he’s very into cover crops. He wants to study the fluctuations of his system from start to finish and is outlining a written proposal of the analysis he wants. “
Freeze said Ward’s overall soil health assessment is a great tool for farmers and ranchers seeking an in-depth analysis without breaking the bank.
“Ray has really taken the time to fine-tune the soil health research and analysis that really needs to be done. Our new assessment of the new approaches to marries is historically used in tests and methods that are very well vetted. It ‘sa very good bang for your buck for farmers.
“I always ask farmers, ‘What is the most direct answer to the question you want to ask?'” Freeze said. “We will work hard at Ward’s to give you the most direct answer for the most value.”
“If you ever want to get bored, study soils,” Freeze relayed. “Ray is the testament to that! That is why he is almost 85 and still working. There is always something new to learn. It’s a crazy time to be alive, as both a farmer and soil scientist.
“We have more mouths to feed than ever before,” Freeze said in closing. “We also have depleted soils. But the good news is, it is possible to rebuild the soil. With more mouths to feed, we need the ingenuity of the private lab to help meet the demand by working with farmers and using soil health as a guide. ” Learn more at www.wardlab.com.
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