How to measure soil carbon, influence soil carbon, and influence others to care about soil carbon has motivated Peter Donovan for nearly three decades now. He locates himself squarely between the social worlds of science and practice and has worked to foster the relationship between knowing and doing with a passion that is unusual in our culture. In this wide-ranging interview, he and Tip discuss what is soil carbon, what we don't know about soil carbon, and the importance of social networks and internal motivation to caring for land well.
AoR 70: Soil Carbon and Social Networks with Peter Donovan
>> Welcome to the Art of Range, the podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conservation. Find us online at artofrange.com My guest today on the Art of Range is Peter Donovan. Peter is with the Soil Carbon Coalition and is somebody who's been interest in regenerative agriculture and ecosystem function and soil carbon since before it was sexy. Peter, welcome to the show.
>> Thank you, Tip.
>> Not everybody spends most of their time thinking about and doing something about soil carbon and I -- we've known each other for a little while but I don't know, how did you get to doing what you're doing today?
>> Well, it's kind of a long story but briefly, my background when I was in my 20s, I did a lot of herding of livestock for sheep and cattle outfits in Oregon and Idaho, and you know, quite a bit later in the early 1990s, I met Allan Savory and took several years of training with that and with the WSU Kellogg Project in the state of Washington in mid-90s and I was very intrigued to say the least and it surely changed the course of my life and shortly after that, I began to do a lot of reporting. I did a magazine. It was a quarterly magazine on holistic management in the northwest U.S. and most of that reporting is now on the managingwholes.com website and then in the 2000s, I became very interested in climate change as well as ecosystem function and in 2007, with some other people, I started the Soil Carbon Coalition and basically the purpose of that organization is to help people ask better questions and to engage more people in asking and answering those questions, and one of those questions was of course, about soil carbon, so I did a lot of measurement and I've lived in a school bus for the past 10 years, and for the past 8 of those, I've been traveling around the country, North America, Canada as well as Mexico doing lots of different baseline plots, looking at range cover, water infiltration, as well as doing some fairly accurate measurements of soil carbon at particular points in the landscape, not landscape level assessments but particular points to try to measure change.
>> Yeah, I want to ask the obvious question for my own benefit. It's easy to say the words soil carbon but that's actually pretty complex. How would you begin to tell somebody what is soil carbon?
>> Well, the periodic table is one of the few classifications that I admire, but carbon of course has many different forms. It's the skeletal structure of most of our organic compounds and soil carbon, very briefly, could be defined as the living, the dead, and the very dead, and these are the residues of living organisms, of plants, of as well as living microbes and things like that, and the reason I think many people understand that the carbon fraction of the soil which is sometimes called organic matter or hummus. There's lots of different terms and people argue about them and then there's various types of inorganic carbon such as calcium carbonate, but the particularly the organic forms of carbon, although they're usually a few percent of the soil mass, are responsible for a great deal of the function of soils, their ability to absorb and retain water, their porosity, their aggregate structure. Those are highly dependent upon the carbon fractions, the snots, slimes, and glues that hold the mineral particles together in an aggregate that helps form a pore that is resistant to saturation, that it can still hold air and water and transmit water when it's saturated. And the reason I measured carbon, began to measure carbon was that it's easier than measuring water, at least because water changes its form, you know, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, whereas most forms of organic soil carbon are somewhat more stable, so it's easier to get a time series of what the change might be.
>> Yeah, interestingly, there's a fair bit of research at this point, I believe, that is suggesting that grassland and rangeland soil carbon is quite a bit more stable or reliable than even forest soil carbon, which looks like it's more durable, but it's also prone to being lost through wildfire and in rangeland soils -- correct me if this doesn't sound right -- the vast majority of that carbon is below ground instead of above ground and therefore less subject to being lost through above-ground ecosystem processes.
>> Well, I don't know all the details about that but the -- I have recorded some pretty sudden and relatively short-term changes in soil carbon, particularly in the top, you know, few inches. I think it changes. It can change fairly rapidly.
>> And what are the drivers of those changes?
>> Not sure, but I think microbes have a lot to do with it and where you have a bloom of microbes that can eat a lot of your organic matter and where it's exposed to oxygen and the elements and so forth, it can probably disappear fairly rapidly. The people who've studied soil aggregation know that these things can be formed and lost pretty rapidly, you know, lost through till -- through repeated tillage for example and exposure.
>> And weather has a fair amount to do with that, I'm convinced, as well as the status of the microbial populations, status and activity.
>> Yeah. How does weather affect it?
>> Well, if you're hot and dry, I think if you have a long drought, it's difficult in an arid environment to really build soil carbon.
>> Right, and the rate of change is slower, I would assume?
>> Yeah, I don't really know. There's a lot that people don't know about that and it's common for one study or one study or series of studies to claim validity for bigger areas that they're looking at and longer time spans.
>> Right, right. What -- you mentioned that you've done a fair bit of measurement of soil carbon. In what ways are you measuring, either directly soil carbon, or the relative change in soil carbon over time?
>> Well, the typical test I use is carbon-nitrogen analysis where a dried, prepared sample is put in a crucible and heated to about 900 degrees Centigrade, and the amount of carbon dioxide that's evolved off is can be fairly accurately measured, and so that gives you a pretty good assessment of the amount of carbon, organic as well as inorganic, and it's also possible to separate organic from inorganic, but I think the -- one of the things that gets lost in this exploration of details is the fact that carbon represents a capture of solar energy by photosynthesis, and although it's easy to become focused on carbon, on the element carbon, and we can certainly test for that and there are very accurate tests for it. It's really part of a much bigger picture and that's the capture of solar energy by the biosphere, which includes water.
>> Yeah, I would agree that that is one of the most important things that we can do as humans to try to make life better and the planet healthier, and you said that you're an advocate of holistic management. In what ways would you say that livestock can contribute to that usefully? I mean, some of those seem pretty obvious and maybe the less obvious question is in what ways can livestock interrupt that or reduce the ability of a plant-soil interface to capture solar energy and convert that into something stable?
>> Well, the process of capture of solar energy by landscapes is a combination of, if you will, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, and the nitrogen and sulfur cycles have something to do with it as well, but the principal capture of land-based biotic communities is in water. It takes a lot of energy to desalinate seawater, move it over the land and distribute it into the soil pores and sunlight does that for us sometimes, often, and photosynthesis is a tiny percentage of that kind of energy, that level of energy, of work, of power, but it has enormous leverage because it can create those carbon compounds that create -- that in turn create and maintain those soil aggregates that are so important in absorbing and holding water, without which photosynthesis can't really occur, so there's definitely a complex feedback relationship between carbon and water cycles, and you know, the management of livestock I think can have a tremendous difference in how that works. If all the vegetation is grazed off and plants aren't allowed to contribute their photosynthetic project -- products to the soil microbiology, the soil food web, then the land is likely to become, the soil is likely to become very compacted, not absorb water as well, which then makes a vicious circle in terms of plant growth, so the -- you can get, you know, very degraded, desertified landscapes without management of livestock, whereas with better management, you can -- it's possible to improve both water capture and photosynthesis by allowing the plants to be more or less fully expressed, allowing, you know, good recovery periods and all of that that many people have advocated.
>> Yeah. Yeah, that question of what is better is the billion dollar question, that there's a fair bit of controversy about. Peter, what have you observed as you've traveled across the country looking at livestock operations and potentially farming operations? What separates the ones that are effective in doing this, in capturing solar energy from the ones that are not as effective?
>> Well, I'll take that a little bit bigger and I think one of the two main things that I've learned in doing this are that number one, everybody who knows anything about the relationship of soil and water, of the water cycle and photosynthesis, is in favor of increasing soil health and watershed function. There's not a controversy about that. And number two, those that I feel are most successful or most effective at managing for soil health and watershed function are all internally motivated. They're not externally motivated. In other words, they're motivated by their love of the land, by their own curiosity, by their growing awareness of the relationship between say carbon cycling and water cycling, the way the biosphere works, succession, diversity, the role of all of those things, and they're usually pretty happy to share what they're learning, and yet those two things that I learned sort of form a contradiction because most of our policies and programs are now set up to deliver external incentives, carrots and sticks, or rewards and punishments, which I think is less than optimal, and the external motivations tend to rob people of their autonomy, their curiosity, their entrepreneurial can-do attitudes and they also create antagonism between what people know and want to do and what they do, you know, a dissonance if you will between what they do and what they think or believe. For example, if they're paid to do a certain kind of practice but they don't really believe in it or don't see that it results in something positive for them, and here we're talking mainly about crop farming, you know, the emphasis on incentives for cover cropping, carbon credits, all these other things.
>> Yeah, I think some of those programs are perceived, at least by the government, to be an improvement on, you know, what I would call disincentive programs like the conversation reserve program that paid people not to farm anything in places that were not well-suited to crop farming, and so, you know, it appears to be some progress to have people -- to attempt to incentivize practices that are more sustainable instead of incentivizing, instead of the -- trying to promote it in the negative, but I would agree with you that in the long term, that's still not truly socially or economically sustainable unless there's, you know, real wealth, real intrinsic value possible in the practice itself, which is what I think you're saying.
>> Yeah, and it's, you know, obviously external incentives work well in, you know, fairly linear input/output systems. For example, if the price of corn doubles, you'll see more acreage planted and more inputs applied, but I think a lot of the issues and concerns around soil health and watershed function, carbon and water cycling, are not as amenable to simple input/output approaches. You know, obviously, putting in a cover crop is probably going to help some, or backing off of intensive tillage may help some, but it's not always clear what the outcomes of these things might be in every case, and these practices are sort of inherently tough to define. You know, what is rotational grazing to somebody over here might be different than over there and timing and everything might differ quite a bit.
>> Yeah, can you give a hypothetical scenario? Say you're conducting some soil testing and/or infiltration testing on somebody's place and you come up with X result. What would be -- give an example of a result that you would want a landowner to respond to in a particular way, and what would that response be?
>> Well, one of the things I like to do is to do a single ring infiltration test using multiple steel rings, not just one, but multiple, because it's very -- it's quite a variable test in most -- especially on rangeland and pasture, and to do a sort of a fence line comparison or an across the road comparison where things have been managed differently, and it's often the case that the results are quite different and to try to figure out why is a good learning question. Why does across the road take, you know, six, seven minutes to infiltrate the first inch and then 25 to infiltrate the second inch? Whereas on this side of the road, the first inch goes in two minutes and the second one goes in in five and that sort of thing, and those differences can be very significant when you extrapolate them to, you know, larger landscapes. You're running off a lot more water across the road than you are here and it asks a question basically, why or what's going -- what's the difference here? And those questions don't always have definitive answers, but they're good questions to ask and it's useful also to dig up the infiltration rings afterwards and take a look at the soil structure, the biology and so forth and talk about the history of the land too, so I like to do that with people who have managed land for quite a while.
>> If on side of an ownership boundary, you have three or four soil types, if management is effective, should infiltration be higher on across all of those soil types compared to the same soil type on the other side of a ownership fence? Does that make sense?
>> Yeah, I'm not sure I buy into the should question. That's a tough one for me. it would probably be hard to get very consistent infiltration measurements everywhere, even on the same soil type, and that's why I use more than one infiltration ring.
>> So you're saying that the comparison would only be accurate within a soil type over time rather than comparing it in space. Is that right?
>> I'm just not very comfortable with the should.
>> So you're visiting the same sites over time. Is that right?
>> I have visited a lot of same -- a lot of the sites over time, yes and --
>> -- not all of them. Some of them have changed ownership. People have lost interest and so forth, but that's to be expected.
>> Yeah, and what you're hoping for or potentially looking for is that an increase in soil health and soil carbon would result in increased infiltration rates over time?
>> That's kind of the projection, but it doesn't always occur and I for --
>> I see.
>> -- the years, for the first years that I did a lot of carbon sampling, I wasn't doing very -- my infiltration tests were pretty sparse and so I'm actually backing off of the carbon tests in part because the number of misapprehensions about soil carbon has grown exponentially in the last few years, that it's somehow a magic bullet to subtract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example --
>> -- and those have been -- I don't know -- somewhat troubling to me. a lot of the sexiness or conversation around soil carbon is that it's a direct sequestration or sinking or direct subtraction from carbon in the atmosphere, and I don't think it's that simple. Typically, the drawdown scenarios will -- that many people have done ignore the buffering effect of the oceans, and I'm not a climate scientist. I'm very interest in energy flows and thermodynamics and how that works with biology and so forth but the off-gassing of ocean carbon dioxide is something that not very many people have factored into their simple models.
>> Peter, a few minutes ago, you mentioned desertification. How would you define desertification and what would you say are some of the factors in livestock management that lead to desertification in grazed landscapes?
>> You know, I'm not sure what I would define desertification as. I have a sense that most people think it's degradation, less ability to support life.
>> Yeah, the connotation that I think I have and I actually don't have any kind of a formal definition in front of me, you know, is a loss of cover and annual biomass production, an increase in bare ground, a loss of soil stability, and I'm curious what you've seen in different places in terms of the different kinds of livestock management that lead to more of that or less of that.
>> Yeah, I'm not sure I would -- I track that extensively. You know, I'm not a consultant, Tip. I've done a lot of monitoring and I've learned some things from that, but a lot of what I've done has been very scattered out. It hasn't been exactly systematic exploration of the entire continent or and I'm not been involved in reasoning or describing the landscape status everywhere, so.
>> Yeah. Yeah, and going back to soil carbon, would you say there's any particular management inputs or livestock grazing variables that result in, you know, a consistent increase or decrease in soil carbon? We talked about that a bit. I'm just curious if there's anything more on that rabbit trail.
>> Well, I've noticed some general things. Soil carbon seems to be easier to increase if you live in a northern latitude with good winters, with, you know, cold -- long, cold winters and I believe perennial grasses are a key. Diversity definitely contributes as well as long recovery periods. The people who I've seen the biggest soil carbon increases on are using some form of planned grazing, holistic planned grazing, and they're using long recovery periods and they live more or less above the 45th parallel.
>> Yeah, I've seen some historical and proposed carbon contracts for grazing programs that would pay for a certain set of practices that are supposed to, you know, encourage or allow whatever the local potential is for carbon sequestration. I'm curious what you think about these emerging carbon markets. Is that an effective way to provoke thinking in a way that pushes ecosystem management and not just livestock production, pounds of production?
>> Well, I think that these are in the way of external incentives, and as I said, the people that I think are doing the most for soil health and watershed function are internally motivated.
>> Mm-hm, and don't need the external incentives.
>> They might like them, if they correspond with their own incentives, but if they don't have that internal motivation, I think it's difficult to say, airdrop three horsepower per acre of internal motivation, you know, using some big program or something. It doesn't happen that way and, you know, we've seen carbon markets come and go and we're seeing a new flush of them now and I don't think that's a very good way to go if we're interested in increasing soil health and trying to deal with climate change, because it is, as you well know, it's in a nature of an offset, which means it, in effect, allows emissions to hold their near-present levels without going down and the verification and stuff is based upon models with lots of assumptions on them.
>> So you would say if we want to make a difference in the global carbon dioxide balance, we have to both reduce emissions and increase the ability of the biosphere to store carbon in more stable forms than gas?
>> Yes, I think all things are important, but I also think we need to really improve the water cycle, slow it down, which means soils that are better able to accept and hold water, which is why I started measuring carbon in the first place. Yeah, I think as several people have observed, it's not that carbon or carbon dioxide is not important or highly relevant for the earth's climate, but it's one factor and water vapor is still the big one in terms of greenhouse gases, and we know that the balance of our temperature on Earth is largely driven by the behavior of water and water vapor, and that's the real -- one of the real penalties of degraded landscapes and desertification, that we're -- we have, you know, these heat domes and things that are repelling rainfall and we have longer droughts and bigger storms because the water cycle is intensifying. Much -- some of the sea level rise can be attributed to soil compaction for example.
>> A macroscale loss of water holding capacity, is that what you're saying?
>> Yes. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey noted that in the Mississippi-Missouri basin, since 1949 to about 2000, rainfall has increased 2.1% per decade, but outflow at the Atchafalaya and the mouth of the Mississippi has increased 5.5% per decade when you account for reservoir filling, and then that's an enormous disparity, which I find it points to a big fat finger at soil compaction.
>> I want to pivot to maybe another line of questioning that might lead us to an ending point here. A lot of people have heard news about or seen bits and pieces from the United Nations report from about a decade ago now, Livestock's Long Shadow, that paints a pretty ugly picture of the relative role of livestock production around the world and its relative contribution to loss of carbon storage and significant emissions, and of course that's -- it obviously is a quite large amount of variation across the globe in how livestock are managed and how the plant communities that they depend on are managed. I'm curious if you have any observations about things that that report missed or, you know, ways of calculating this balance that may have been ignored in some of the mass media reporting about that report.
>> Well, these kind of reports or papers or whatever, I think in some ways they're asking a question that's not very useful. You know, if we ask a question are livestock bad? Is livestock raising bad or is it good? I don't think that's a very good question.
>> I think a better question is how does this function in a system? And that's going to vary and it varies a lot with management too. For example, whether to call something good or bad in my county in northeast Oregon, in the 1920s cows were good and wolves were bad, and in the 1960s it was decided that dietary fat was bad for heart attacks and so forth, and these things switch around according to our perspectives and according to our expanded awarenesses. In the 1990s, some people in northeast Oregon said that cows were bad and wolves were good, and I think a better question is how do they function in the system, but we're rather addicted to those questions and the media love them. You know, is something -- is A or B good or bad? And if that's -- that's why I don't typically trust a lot of categories.
>> Mm-hm. And as soon as we apply that kind of reductionistic thinking to the question, then all of the answers that we come up with aren't worth much, regardless of which one it is.
>> Yeah. Yeah, and it's a -- for so much of our science and I think agricultural science is -- has been very backward in some ways. Cybernetics and complexity thinking made great strides in many areas of science but I don't think they went very far into agriculture or range management until Savory collided head on with that stuff and caused a lot of disruption and in some cases bad feelings and traditions of opposition and so forth, but the questions we ask need to get better and what we're losing when we ask a question like is this good or bad, is we're losing the ability to have real feedback and instead of real feedback which is, you know, how does the actual performance of the system -- how does -- how do we guide the system based on actual performance rather than expected performance is one of the ways that Norbert Wiener defined feedback, or one system affects -- the first system affects the second, and the second system affects the first, which means that it's very difficult to puzzle out cause and effect in a lot of these situations, like is it the water cycle or the carbon cycle that's causing climate change? Probably not a very good question, and really what we need to do is to replace our appetite for judgment at least in part with real feedback. In other words, we have a judgment question. Is this good or bad? Or is livestock grazing good or bad? Or we can have a feedback question. How does this function in the system? How does livestock grazing function in the system, here, there and somewhere else and how do we find out? That's a learning question. It's not a judgment question, but we are addicted to judgment questions and they're inevitable. We're humans in society. We can't avoid them but we can always add a learning question and I think that's our huge opportunity to add learning questions to judgment questions.
>> I think that's some good advice and that also goes back to your comment that people who make progress in increasing ecosystem health, whether that's, you know, a cropping system or a livestock grazing system, are those that are internally motivated. That reminds me of some research. I want to say it was some joint research with Montana State and Oregon State University on riparian management. They were looking for what are the -- looking for common denominators in ranches that had healthy riparian systems. You know, what management inputs were common to all of the places that had healthy riparian areas? And their conclusion was that one of the most telling indicators, one of the -- a factor which had the highest frequency across ranches that were successful at doing this was that there was an on-the-ground manager who was committed to managing riparian zones toward riparian health, whatever that might mean. The point was there was somebody there paying attention for whom this was a primary goal and they were, you know, moving toward that on a daily basis to the best of their ability and that made all the difference in the world, more so than specifying, you know, here's a hard practice that if you implement it, if you implement, you know, practice standard 593, you're going to end up with a really healthy riparian zone, and it was a little bit more organic and adaptive than that.
>> Yeah and there's -- sounds like they identified that an actual feedback loop was important and very relevant and I would say that that corresponds to my own experience, and that's where external incentives typically go astray. You know, the common definitions of feedback in at on Wikipedia for example, are that it's being evaluated. Say the schoolteacher gives you a grade or a job evaluation gives you a, you know, B minus or Unsatisfactory or whatever it is, or it's the squawk from a microphone when it's placed in front of a speaker, and I think we, although the latter is more right really, it's about mutual interaction, real feedback is actually fairly rare in most of our programs and external incentives. In other words, if we have a incentive program for cover crops, the feedback is a judgment or maybe a number, how many acres got cover cropped, or did it happen or did it not? That's not to say that this is about some greater result or something like that in terms of soil health or watershed function, but we tend to slip back into feedback as merely a judgment rather than an active learning, so I think there's real potential in that active learning and feedback and the learning questions rather than just the judgment questions. You know, instead of asking, for example, is my soil type good or bad, a better question might be how fast does it take an inch of water or a second inch or a third inch to infiltrate and what might be the factors that encourage this? And so much of our range monitoring has been -- has defaulted to a kind of a judgment. You know, is your bare ground increasing or decreasing, and sometimes there's not very much intersection with actual management decisions. Monitoring is done by a consultant and the box is checked.
>> Yeah, I would agree with that. Listening to some birds in the background makes me wonder about some other proxy measures that are, you know, more feedback and less judgment proxy measures of ecosystem health with regard to the water cycle. I definitely see how infiltration rates are a good measurement, and this may not be your area of expertise but are there other proxy measures like that that you think are useful for helping particularly livestock producers on rangeland think through rangeland health and whether the way they're managing livestock grazing is promoting it or hurting it?
>> Well, I think there are a number of things that many people have been doing that are probably good learning explorations, you know, pollinators, bird counts. I think we sometimes fail to realize how many different elements there are in these rangeland communities and, you know, to focus only on the volume of or weight of grass that you can produce is probably shortsighted, but also things like how well do you enjoy being out on the land and working with livestock and looking at the plants and the animals and looking at the soil and feeling it with your step and so forth? That -- those are all good things to be aware of. We can use all of our senses. We don't have to -- we don't always have to defer to experts. We can participate. We're part of this. We're part of this system.
>> Yeah, I don't know who first said it but there's a fairly well known idiom that can sometimes sound a bit trite, but I think it's also pretty accurate that the best fertilizer you could apply to a farm is the farmer's footsteps. It assumes that somebody is spending time observing what's going on, you know, feeling it and not just measuring it and giving some real thought to what's going on.
>> Yeah, or more than footsteps, sometimes butt prints are important too, because if you sit for a while in a place, you'll see things that you won't when you're walking and for example, when I've been doing infiltration tests with farmers and ranchers, I've had several people report to me that while waiting for the water to sink into the ground, that this was the longest time they've ever spent in one place that they can remember.
>> That's fascinating.
>> And they --
>> And that might only be seven minutes.
>> Yeah, because they're usually in the habit of rushing off to check the next box or whatever, put out the next fire.
>> Well, I think that's some good final advice, to sit down and think and observe, because those observations are the basis for nearly any kind of sound management. Anything else that you wanted to say that I haven't asked about or you haven't had a chance to talk about?
>> Well, one of the things that I think are -- is very important and sometimes hasn't -- and this is something I've learned in my two dozen years of working on this is that learning networks are a pretty important way to get beyond just the judgment and the external motivations that we have for soil health and watershed function or regenerative agriculture, and I think learning networks, you know, local networks of people who learn from each other, talk to each other, begin to trust one another, are a super power, if you will, at learning about how ecosystems work, not just with this or that piece of research or something, but with actual participatory observation and evidence gathering and discussion and witnessing the process of learning in ourselves and others, and I think those can be very powerful things and the Soil Carbon Coalition has done a lot now toward building a web app that's specifically for learning networks, learning groups, local groups of people who want to learn together and exchange information and share data and evidence, so and the web app is called soilhealth.app and it doesn't -- it's not for individuals. It's for projects that involve local groups learning from each other and with each other.
>> I love it. I think that's a good final word. Peter Donovan, again, thank you for your time.
>> You're welcome, Tip.
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