Profile: Sarah Lepp
Like many, Sarah Lepp was bored in her high school geography class – not realizing until university that it did not have to be all about memorizing capital cities and world atlases.
While the St. Catharines native had always hiked in Short Hills Provincial Park, the discipline of Physical Geography at Brock gave her fresh eyes and a renewed appreciation for how the landscape was defined tens of thousands of years ago by glaciers and today by the physiographic variations.
She’s the type always inspired by both peculiarities and patterns so it wasn’t surprising she became involved in the study of fluviomorphology, the phenomena of how water carves out a new natural integrity. It would be the first of many proficiencies to come.
“Being out in nature has always and still does make me happy and peaceful; I always wanted everyone to have experiences like this.” It was in an effort to help keep the integrity of the environment that drew her initially to Niagara College some 15 years ago for a diploma in Environmental Technician Field/Lab before her foray into geography for a Bachelor of Science degree.
Yet geographers are a curious bunch; they need to make sense of the world, understand how things change over time and how this knowledge could help others. Still looking to find her own place in the world, Sarah arrived back at NC’s Research & Innovation division a decade ago and worked her way to Senior Research Associate while cultivating her own path.
Through her work at the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), she has become highly valued in the agricultural industry for her expertise in geographic information systems (GIS), field topography dataset analysis, precision agriculture data quality, and something called phytogeomorphometrics, the study of how plants interact with the land surface (the research team has done extensive work with quantifying landforms and how crop and crop health changes with landform types).
She’s known also for her ground-breaking work as co-architect of NC’s Crop Portal, along with Mike Duncan, PhD, the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Precision Agriculture and Environmental Technologies, an interactive web software for farmers and consultants to access precision agriculture technologies.
The web software system is a major and ongoing project that houses and processes farm data, such as yield and topography, into visual digitized 3D maps, giving farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability.
Sarah is currently working on expanding the Crop Portal, which will allow farmers and scientists alike not only more flexibility to visualize and verify their data, but to also have the capability to manipulate their own algorithms.
“There is a lot of the same capacity of the initial Crop Portal but it’s a bigger, heavier program, and for much deeper analysis,” she explains.
“I’ve been able to explore and expand so much and I’ve been able to work with many different people in so many different fields.”
The Crop Portal is under the important umbrella of precision agriculture, of which NC has taken a leading role in developing tools to support and leverage technologies for the modern Canadian farm business to prosper.
It’s also an industry that has meant she get to know the growers, and other stakeholders, like agronomists, crop consultants, and government representatives and dive deep into the agricultural milieu in order to help farmers save money, and support environmental stewardship.
This broad insight has been valuable to doing data analysis and understanding the impacts of topography and soil in a farm field, says Gregor MacLean, Project Manager for AETIC.
“Sarah has excellent big picture awareness from the creation of soils that support modern farming, the complexity of farm business, and the need for precision agriculture in modern farming,” MacLean explains. “The mapping, data analysis, and thorough technical understanding Sarah brings to the team is unparalleled and enables the team to complete highly technical precision agriculture data projects.”
While the Crop Portal may be the most significant and time-intensive initiative, Sarah has been integral to a number of important projects with AETIC over the years. In the process, she has evolved as a project supervisor and leader to the many student Research Assistants and graduate Research Associates.
“Sarah provides excellent GIS, farm/field data and agricultural expertise/business support to students and graduates in electronics, computer programming, GIS and more,” adds MacLean.
She’s also been a main point person, nurturing critical relationships for key partnerships with the College. More recently, she was involved in a multi-year applied research effort in precision agriculture, the largest cross-sector joint initiative of its kind in the province. The Precision Agriculture Advancement for Ontario (PAAO) project was a collaboration between academia, government, and the farming industry to develop best practices for the industry.
“I’ve been able to explore and expand so much and I’ve been able to work with many different people in so many different fields,” she says about her experience with working at R&I.
However, her passion has driven more than a diverse perspective of the province’s agricultural evolution. She has developed a soft spot for the uncertain and highly regulated farming industry. In fact, she finds herself awake at night by thoughts of how farmers are misunderstood and misconceived. They’re a group she also calls the “smartest” she’s ever met.
“I’m working with this brilliant group of super important people and they’re not seen as any of those things, if they’re even thought of at all,” she insists. “I don’t think they get enough respect and what they do is really hard; they’re feeding us, they’re doing one of the most important things!”
“I don’t think they get enough respect and what they do is really hard; they’re feeding us, they’re doing one of the most important things!”
She points to the diversity of what farmers need to balance: “they not only have to understand meteorology to know when to plant and harvest, they need to spray and fertilize, which means they need to know chemistry, and understand what reacts with what; and they need to also be accountants and economists,” she explains.
“It definitely bothers me a lot and it’s something that will just crawl into my head when I’m not expecting it.”
It’s also something that she’s not easily able to shut off even with her go-to de-stressors like knitting, hiking, or aerial yoga, something she swears by to help her neck and back from the constant computer work.
Despite any days spent out in the field collecting soil samples, Sarah’s work largely is done behind a bank of computer monitors and can take its toll both physically and mentally. Add to that the extra load this past year of working toward her Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences from Guelph University.
However, her gruelling schedule does have its advantages, as her research on her Master’s – updating Ontario’s outdated soil maps – relates to the projects she’s involved with at R&I.
For example, one industry partner currently collaborating with NC and could reap benefits of such accurate data is Ferrero (as in Ferrero Rocher chocolates), who are looking for a local supply of hazelnuts in Ontario, with a goal of 10,000 hectares to be planted in the next 10 years.
“So, it’s not just that I’m studying something interesting, this has other goals and knowing that I’m doing something specific that will impact different people, different organizations and different growers really helps.”
Indeed, any help she can contribute to the industry will also help her sleep easier at night.