Changing the face of science: Q & A with Alvin J. M. Smucker

Alvin Smucker is the 2015 MSU Innovator of the Year for his original work with subsurface water retention technology and his continuing research to develop water retention membranes on a commercial scale.

Alvin J. M. Smucker

2015 Innovator of the Year

Alvin Smucker, professor of soil biophysics in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is the 2015 MSU Innovator of the Year for his original work with subsurface water retention technology (SWRT) and his continuing research to develop water retention membranes on a commercial scale. He received the distinction from MSU Technologies during the fifth annual MSU Innovation Celebration in April.

“The 2015 MSU Innovator of the Year Award for SWRT affirms another world-grant focus by MSU,” Smucker said. “This demonstrates how scientists from many disciplines at MSU and supporting industries have successfully developed a revolutionary concept for doubling soil water content in the root zones of sandy soils.”

Agriculture uses approximately 70 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. Smucker and his colleagues developed SWRT after six years of research. It’s an MSU-patented process that retains plant-available water and nutrients in the plant root zone.

“This technology has the potential to change lives and regional landscapes domestically and internationally where highly permeable sandy soils have prohibited sustainable food production,” said Smucker.

In addition to 370 million acres in the United States, more than 5 billion acres of soils have been identified for SWRT improvement globally.

Smucker’s innovation strategically places contoured, engineered films at various depths below a plant’s root zone, doubling natural soil water content. Proper membrane spacing also permitsinternal drainage during excess rainfall and provides space for limited primary root growth.

Irrigated sandy soils improved by SWRT membranes produced 45 percent morecucumbers, squash and green peppers than did the control fields near Benton Harbor, Michigan. During the past three years, SWRT membranes have been combined with prescription irrigation and the injection of fertilizers, soil amendments and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system. As a result, the system helped produce 239 percent more corn grain and biomass — with a world record of 325 bushels per acre on irrigated sandy soil — during the 2014 growing season.

Smucker sees the advantages of this system in many aspects of agriculture.

“Water retention membranes reduce quantities of supplemental irrigation, protect potable groundwater supplies, and enable more efficient use of reduced quantities of fertilizers and pesticides.”

Q & A

TITLE: Professor of soil biophysics, MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

JOINED MSU IN: 1971 as assistant professor.

HOMETOWN: A farm between Smithville and Orrville, Ohio. He has lived in Okemos, Michigan, since 1974.

FAMILY: Married to Betty Smucker, MSU instructor emeritus, College of Arts and Letters. They have three married children and nine grandchildren.

MUSES: I am inspired by constant contemplations about new solutions for resolving global poverty, malnutrition and starvation.

FAVORITE FOOD: Peking duck and all of the delicious side dishes that accompany it.

BEST SONG/GROUP: Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

BOOKS I’D RECOMMEND: I believe that multidisciplinary minds need daily readings of the Bible, peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journals and Howard Buffett’s Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.


BEST PERSONAL INVENTION: Hydropneumatic elutriation root washer and global root image processing website:

WORST GLOBAL INVENTION: Soil disc equipment.

ON MY BUCKET LIST: Travel to countries to visit former graduate students.

PERSON I’D MOST LIKE TO MEET: (living or dead): Dr. Francis Collins,geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health and the author of The Language of God.

BEST TRIP/VACATION: Riverboat cruise in Russia from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON, YOU’LL LIKELY FIND ME: Catching up with household hobbies and email.

MAJOR RESEARCH BREAKTHROUGH OF THE NEXT DECADE: Permanent, low-maintenance and inexpensive low-energy water desalinization technologies.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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