Getting down to earth with the community through soil science

Dr. Mathew Swallow, PhD, soil scientist and educator




Digging through the soil might not be the first place you’d expect to find community, but for soil scientist Mathew Swallow, that is where the strongest connections are found.

Swallow is an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Mount Royal. He performs research in his primary area of expertise, soil science.

Currently, that involves two outreach projects, one focused on research and another on community engagement. But both are connected through soil and community.

Swallow’s research partnership examines ranching practices in the greater Calgary area. It looks at land management strategy and how ranchers, farmers and agricultural producers can improve the soil health of their land.

This is achieved through the implementation of benchmarking sites. From these sites, soil is tested multiple times over several years to determine how specific land management practices affect the land.

This project involves extensive collaboration and, as Swallow notes, the research is partly an active conversation between academics and ranchers to produce the best solutions possible.

For Swallow, it’s all about coming into the research with the right perspective. Both academics and the ranchers have perspectives and lived experiences that the other side has no knowledge of. When approaching a community for research, it has to be done with an attitude of mutual respect and a recognition that both partners will be learning from each other. “The key to building those relationships is to not come from a position of authority. Have a bit of humility and admit there are things I don’t know and things they don’t know. You have to work together from that perspective,” Swallow says.

Student engagement is also a large part of this project. Mount Royal students come in to extract the soil samples and throughout that process, engage with the agricultural producers to learn about their experiences, gaining valuable community engagement experience themselves.

Swallow also uses soil in community outreach through his participation in the Soil Camp. Soil Camp was created in a partnership between University of Calgary Associate Professor Miwa Takeuchi and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, with Swallow joining the project a year after its creation. Other important collaborators include Sophia Thraya, Dr. Mahati Kopparla and Anita Chowdhury. Soil Camp is a trans-disciplinary project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council where children learn about soil and their connection to the land. Swallow does not perform any research on this particular project, but he does help create and teach fun soil-based activities for kids.

Swallow notes many of the kids involved with the camp are refugees who have been displaced from their homes, and the idea is to have them reconnect with the land again.

Soil Camp is built around creating empathy for the land and understanding people’s relationship with it. As Swallow says, “they learn about all the organisms in the soil, and they begin to empathize with the land itself . . . when you learn you have a relationship with something as abstract as soil, it becomes much easier to understand and empathize with other people.”