Hons spent a lifetime researching, educating on the importance of soil
COLLEGE STATION – Knowing the general public is gaining more understanding of the importance of the soil and not just “treating it like dirt” is making Dr. Frank Hons’ retirement a little easier.
But after more than 40 years, Hons said he will find it a little hard to say goodbye to the people he’s met through his Texas A&M AgriLife Research studies across the globe and to working with students in his role as a Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences department professor.
He is a native of Seymour and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. He worked for five years as a research assistant in the Texas A&M department of soils and crop science while getting his master’s and doctoral degrees. After graduation, he spent three years at Texas Tech University before returning to Texas A&M in 1981 to stay.
“Probably research-wise what is most important over the years is a greater recognition of the importance of soils,” Hons said, recounting his career. “If you don’t have good soil, you have all kinds of problems – dust storms, poor water quality, lower crop yields, less sustainability of food crops.”
Sustainability of soils, or good quality soils, is needed to produce the food necessary for the world’s population, he said. On a global basis, soil sustainability is an ongoing issue. With the role of the soil in the environment, if it is allowed to degrade, the result could be water quality or climate change issues.
“People have always discussed it, but not until last year was there a concentrated effort to get the message out that soils are important,” Hons said. “People have started thinking about soil sustainability and soil security once again.
“There is a better understanding – it’s not just dirt, it’s soil. There’s an old saying, ‘don’t treat your soil like dirt,’ and maybe we are starting to get there.”
Hons lists the no-till and soil conservation tillage work and demonstrating how those affect environmental quality and crop yields as some of the biggest research efforts he has tackled over the years.
“In Texas, no-till is still a hard sell,” Hons said. “It enhances water storage and improves soil organics, but it may take five to eight years to see the benefits, so some people stop doing it after a couple years.”
He said a new impediment to its adaptation in Texas is herbicide-resistant weeds. But a large majority of Midwestern and Southeastern U.S. producers have adopted the management practice, particularly on sandier soils, and that has been rewarding to see.
On the other extreme, he has worked in parts of the U.S. where copper smelting over many years had created problems, and he helped with the revegetation and remediation of the soils there.
“As soil scientists, we work in many different types of venues – environmental quality, reclamation of areas – not just with food production.”
More recently, Hons said he has been working with greenhouse gases and trying to determine how to reduce greenhouse gases that come from crops and the soil.
His research projects have taken him to Mali and Niger in West Africa, to several areas in Mexico and even to Egypt.
“All the research allowed me to see different soils and cultures,” he said. “It makes you realize how blessed we are to live and work here. In the places we were working in Mexico, there were drug-related shootouts that made us pack up and go home.”
But even there, he said, he made good friends and worked with good people.
“Most things can be hard, but the people you work with make it enjoyable,” he said. “One of the harder, but enjoyable, things was the reclamation of the mining sites. The people from EPA, corporate America and government officials, as well as team members from Texas A&M, were great. It was challenging but rewarding.”
And in the rewarding column, Hons stacks at the top his mentoring of graduate students and his education of the students in the classroom, “because I know that work will be carried on for years to come.”
In spreading his soil wisdom, he has helped mentor 42 graduate students over the years, written 120 journal articles and four book chapters.
“I will miss the people and the students the most,” Hons said. “I’ve never dreaded coming to work.”
And while he officially retired on Jan. 10, he will keep coming to work on a part-time basis for a little while, until his research projects and final graduate students finish up.
“It was a good run. I wouldn’t change too many things if I had to do it again.”