Growing up on a farm in the hills of southwest Wisconsin, CABBI Sustainability researcher Josh Bendorf took a natural interest in the link between agriculture and the environment.

The Bendorf family produces forage and row crops on a few hundred acres of land, but the farm has been challenged by soil erosion and nutrient loss due to increased runoff.

“We have a river that runs through our property, and I can remember several floods in recent years. During these floods, I see how brown the water in the stream gets — all that soil being eroded and all the nutrients going with it,” Bendorf said.

The family used to raise dairy cattle on the farm, and like the crops, the productivity of the herd was greatly affected by changes in the climate.

“Dairy cows are affected by the weather,” he said. “When there are temperature stressors — either really cold or really warm — they’re not as productive.”

Above: Josh Bendorf, right, and undergrad Tyler Donovan of the Iowa State University Biomass Lab sample biomass sorghum roots at ISU’s Sustainable Advanced Bioeconomy Research (SABR) Farm in Fall 2019. Credit: ISU Biomass Lab. Top: Josh Bendorf. Credit: ISU Department of Agronomy

Inspired to help solve problems that have troubled his family farm, Bendorf earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology and a certificate in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His undergraduate thesis project focused on a topic close to home: watershed-scale agricultural land use change analysis, focusing on changes in regional hydrology.

Now Bendorf is completing his last semester as a master’s student in agricultural meteorology at Iowa State University. Put simply, agricultural meteorology is the relationship between climate and agriculture.

It’s a two-way street. On one side, agricultural meteorology examines how climate patterns affect crop production, yield, and water availability. On the other, it looks at how producing crops and livestock operations feed back into the climate, such as how much greenhouse gas emissions are emitted from a concentrated animal feeding operation or a crop field, Bendorf said.

While striving toward his master’s degree, Bendorf has also been working in Andy VanLoocke’s CABBI Sustainability lab at Iowa State. There, he studies bioenergy feedstocks in the field and adapts computational models to simulate the crops and help evaluate their environmental and economic sustainability. For the past two years, the VanLoocke lab has focused on biomass sorghum, a type that sets grain late in the growing season if at all, remaining in the vegetative phase until a killing frost or harvest stops its growth. Thus, this crop accumulates large amounts of biomass, which has great implications for biofuel production.

“We model biomass sorghum using field-based measurements from our CABBI farm to help answer agronomic and environmental questions that farmers or potential producers of this crop might have,” Bendorf said.

To determine the environmental sustainability of growing bioenergy crops, Bendorf and his colleagues study how the crop affects key nutrient cycles, like carbon and nitrogen. For example: How well does biomass sorghum take up fertilizer nitrogen, and conversely, how much of it might run off into nearby waterways?

Though there is not currently a large market for biomass sorghum and other bioenergy crops, Bendorf’s work is essential for laying the groundwork for renewable sources of energy. Biofuels are only more sustainable than fossil fuels if they are grown sustainably; it’s not just emissions that are important.

“We’re growing these bioenergy crops for clean energies, but it defeats the purpose if growing these crops causes severe environmental issues,” he said. “And it’s not just about the environmental side, but the economic side, too. Will it make economic sense for farmers to grow these crops?”

The models produced in VanLoocke’s lab will help answer these questions, ensuring that growing bioenergy crops is as sustainable as possible.

Biomass sorghum grown at the ISU SABR farm is harvested with a large forage chopper. Credit: ISU Biomass Lab

Bendorf has been working with CABBI since he enrolled at Iowa State in January 2019, and he has gained much from the experience.

“I’ve met a lot of great people through CABBI, a lot of people with very diverse backgrounds,” he said. “I enjoy getting to see everyone’s different expertise contributing toward common goals.

“But my favorite aspect of CABBI (maybe selfishly) is that I finally got to travel outside of the Midwest. I’d never done that, growing up on a dairy farm. I went to the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, and I went to Chicago for the first time for a CABBI workshop. I was excited to see new places.”

In his free time, Bendorf enjoys being outdoors, running, biking, kayaking, and hiking. More recently, he has taken up woodworking, crafting signs and tables. He still travels home to his family’s farm – which now produces corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and alfalfa – to lend a helping hand, especially during the harvest season.

After his graduation from Iowa State, Bendorf will begin work as a Precision Agriculture & Conservation Specialist for Pheasants Forever in south central Wisconsin. He is excited to have the chance to help farmers make their operations more sustainable.

“I want to bring this science to the farmers, helping them understand it and finding ways that we can make it make sense for their operations,” he said.

— Article by Communications Intern Maria Maring