Career in Soils, Studying the Foundation for Life

2015 was declared the International Year of Soils by the United Nations General Assembly to increase public awareness and understanding of soil.

To Gerald Miller every year of his 36-year career was the Year of Soils. Miller (’71 MS soil science, ’74 PhD), emeritus professor of agronomy, served as associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Thanks to Miller’s advocacy the Iowa House of Representatives approved a resolution supporting the International Year of Soils and declaring soil’s importance to “Iowa’s future prosperity and healthy environment.”

“Soil along with water, is the basic foundation for life on planet Earth. Without soil, terrestrial animals, including people, would be dependent on fresh and marine waters for their food source. Not a viable option,” says Miller.

After joining Iowa State University in 1974 as an extension agronomist, Miller spent the next 25 years building two careers—one at Iowa State, and the other in the Iowa National Guard.

Miller commanded Army National Guard units at company, battalion, brigade and division levels throughout the 1970s and 1990s. First commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in ROTC at Virginia Tech in 1965, Miller served in active duty in the Army in the mid-1960s.

At Iowa State, he led extension education programs and conducted applied studies for soil survey and soil and water management. He oversaw the annual plan of work and budget for more than 120 faculty and staff located on campus and across the state.

“Jerry believed in teamwork. In fact, the USDA-NIFA Committee for Shared Leadership in Water Resources named a national award after him—the Gerald A. Miller Outreach Team Award,” says John Lawrence, associate dean for extension and director of ISU Extension and Outreach Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Putting teamwork into action, Miller served as the project director for the Heartland Regional Water Coordination Initiative. The initiative brought together water quality coordinators, extension and research faculty from multiple land grant universities. They built institutional partnerships to increase the capacity of citizens, landowners, agencies and community leaders to better address water quality concerns.

In retirement, Miller continues to be involved in the Iowa Cooperative Soil Survey, Iowa Soil Properties and Interpretation Database and Iowa Soil and Land Use website. He recently helped update Iowa State University’s Corn Suitability Rating system.

He and his wife Betty settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2013 where he’s taken a seat on the Kent County Conservation District Board and serves in conservation leadership at the state and regional levels.

Miller undoubtedly will continue celebrating soil long after the calendar flips to the new year. He says there is still much to teach and to discover about soil.

“I wish people understood soil is not dirt! Soil is alive with abundant microscopic life. Each kind of soil consists of chemical, physical and biological properties. Soils have depth, length and width on the landscape,” Miller says. “Dirt is defined as soil out-of-place, like under your fingernails or on your skin and clothes.”

“The biological component of soils is the least understood and ripe for scientific discovery,” he says. “My forecast is many future discoveries in medicine will be derived from our isolation and understanding of microbes in different kinds of soil.”