Principal Investigator

Sam E. Wortman, Assistant Professor, Urban Food Production

Sam Wortman Portrait

My research program has been shaped by my diverse educational background, which includes a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies from the University of St. Thomas and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL). My background and training in the field of agroecology at UNL prepared me well to address the environmental and agricultural challenges of growing food sustainably in cities. I joined the Department of Crop Sciences as an Assistant Professor and started the Urban Agriculture Research Lab in July 2012. The overall goal of my research program is to improve the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of urban and peri-urban food production systems of the north central US. Current projects are focused on characterizing the distribution of air and soil pollutants and quantifying their effects on vegetable crop physiology within metropolitan regions, improving the efficiency and productivity of hydroponic and aquaponic systems, developing sustainable organic weed management strategies, maximizing the efficiency and function of cover crop mixtures, and evaluating the long-term agronomic and ecological benefits of various urban soil remediation strategies and cropping systems. Stakeholders include urban and peri-urban farmers, small-scale and organic fruit and vegetable farmers, home and community gardeners, environmental consultants, and urban planners.

Graduate Students

Ross Wagstaff, PhD Student

RossWagstaffPortraitI am a native to Southern Idaho. I was raised on a small irrigated farm producing specialty crops like dry black beans, sweet corn, and onions. After high school I joined the Marine Corps and worked as an F-18 mechanic for five years. Afterwards, I did a two year ministerial mission for the LDS church in Taiwan. I started attending school in 2007 at the age of 27 and graduated in two years with a degree in Agriculture Science with minors in Chemistry and Biology from BYU Idaho. Upon graduation, I moved to Pullman, Washington and completed a master’s degree from Washington State University working in wheat physiology. For 11 weeks in the summer of 2012 I went to Ciudad Obregon in Sonora Mexico for an internship at CIMMYT, an international non-profit crop development research institution. In August of 2012, my growing family and I moved to Thomasboro, IL and I began a PhD program under Dr. Wortman studying the effect of the urban environment on vegetable growth and production in the greater Chicago area. I am married with twin boys born in 2008, a daughter born in 2010, and a baby boy born in 2013. My interests are gardening, politics, reading, music, and community service. I am interested in agricultural development for the purpose of alleviating poverty, reducing environmental effects, and making positive social changes.  

Ashley Holmes, MS Student

BioPhoto Ashley Holmes

I am a Greencastle, Indiana native and a graduate of Purdue University, where I earned a BS in NRES and Environmental Plant Studies and minored in Soil Science. I grew up in a rural farming community, but I wasn’t raised on a farm. I only had a little bit of gardening experience before college. During my stay at Purdue, I became heavily involved at the fledgling Purdue Student Farm, where I interned for three summers and held office in its associated student organization, Full Circle Agriculture at Purdue. The student farm emphasized sustainable ag practices and supported the local food movement. It taught me that there’s much more to farming than the usual corn and soybeans. In May of 2014, I began working on an MS degree with Dr. Wortman studying cover crop mixtures and their relationship to soil fertility, soil microbial activity and weed suppression. My current career goal is to become a university agricultural extension educator. I want to use what I learn from this study to better inform small and large farmers alike that sustainable practices such as cover cropping are a viable alternative to conventional soil and pest management methods. My hope is that educating others about sustainable agriculture can help improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, reduce dependence on chemical inputs, enliven farming communities, and bolster food security in the Midwest.


Liz Miernicki, MS Student

Liz bioI was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in a town called Oak Lawn. I moved to Mokena, a southwest suburb of Chicago, right before I started junior high school. In May of 2015, I graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a BS in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences with my concentration as Resource Conservation and Restoration Ecology. I spent the last two years of my undergraduate career on the Illini Soil Judging Team, which ultimately led me to a soil science career path. However, I want to focus on urban soils due to their frequent contamination of heavy metals and organic pollutants. In addition, through sustainable soil management practices, I hope to one day help improve food security within cities. My interests have led me to Dr. Wortman’s Urban Agriculture Lab, where as a MS student I study the long-term effects of urban soil management systems on factors such as crop yield and various soil properties. My second study involves organic fertilizers and their individual and interacting effects on soil and fertilizer microbial communities within Magenta units. I thoroughly enjoy biking, going to farmers markets, concerts and collecting National Geographic Magazines.


Emily Braun, MS Student

BraunI grew up in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago in a town that was once primarily farmland, but through the years became heavily residential.  As a child, as far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store, and I did not think much about food production beyond that until I went to college.  I attended Loyola University Chicago (LUC), where I earned my B.S. in Environmental Science with a concentration in Food Systems.  While at LUC, I worked primarily in greenhouses as well as community gardens, which I researched as a response to food insecurity experienced by refugee groups within the Rogers Park community of Chicago. I piloted a program for refugee families to supplement their diets by growing food at LUC’s Urban Agriculture Demonstration Site.  After graduation from LUC, I interned with Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts in their horticulture department, where I maintained landscapes in the Animal Kingdom areas. I also studied the plants located in Central Florida’s ecosystems and created a design plan for Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival Backyard Play Garden.  I began working toward an M.S. degree with Dr. Wortman in May 2015, studying the efficacy of abrasive weed control in vegetable crops as an alternative to conventional weed management systems.  My education and experiences have fostered my interest in helping people and in working toward global equality. I believe that agriculture and food production are two very important avenues to achieve this. By creating changes in the way we produce food, we can better not only our environment, but also the livelihood of the people within our country and within other countries as well.

Research Specialists

Michael Douglass, Research Specialist

IMG_20130715_100231_422I have spent most of my time living, learning and working in the rural Midwest.  I obtained a bachelor’s degree from Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, and I have worked in the field of agricultural research since 2002.  I am eager to work in the arena of local and sustainable food production because of an over-arching interest in our responsibilities to personal health & well-being, our communities, and our environment.  I enjoy working as part of Dr. Wortman’s research team because of the opportunity it provides to continue to learn and share applicable and novel research in the field of local and urban agriculture.