Branching Out

Christian Lessey | B.S. Soil Science | Class of 2025

Portland, OR | Salt Lake City, UT

Oregon State University Dean’s List |

Building Blocks

I moved from Portland Oregon to Utah when I was nine years old and fell in love with skiing and spending time in the mountains. I only ski once or twice a year living in Oregon, but it is one of my favorite ways to spend the day.


Regenerative agriculture is what enticed me to come to university later in life. I think we are at a tipping point with many of our cropping systems. We still can change course, it's not too late! I am a firm believer in the principles of regenerative agriculture and building soil health. I have this crazy idea that I will be able to help push the needle towards a more sustainable future, that is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I love to build things. I have always had an affinity for tools and the creative process of starting with material and creating something. I have worked in construction on and off for the better part of my life. Some of my favorite projects to work on involve solving an issue or improving an existing system. My entire ethos in life is improvement. I like to leave things in better condition than when I received them. I am hoping I can leave the Earth in a better place than when I found it.

Covering the Basics

I left a lucrative career managing construction projects in Silicon Valley to chase my passion of regenerative agriculture. When I first came back to OSU my focus was crop breeding and genetics. I took SOIL 205 and changed my major before the end of the term. This was a pivotal moment in my life. We have just scratched the surface of the complex communities that live within the soil. The more I dive into soil and biology the more questions I have. We have just barely scratched the surface of what is going on under our feet.

My ultimate goal is to work towards transitioning our agricultural systems towards more regenerative practices. This includes the use of cover crops, rotational grazing, well-planned crop rotations, and more diversity. I am working on a graduate degree at Oregon State studying cover crops in hazelnuts. Many hazelnut farmers have bare soil (scorched earth) in their orchards to facilitate harvesting the nuts from the soil surface. Many farmers are having success using cover crops in hazelnut orchards. I am working to study their operations and figure out what is working and what is not working. I want to reverse engineer these operations and compare them to bare soil orchards. The goal of the project is to help build a road map to help transition hazelnut orchards with bare soil to incorporate cover crops into their orchards. My project is titled “Overcoming the Barriers to cover crops used in hazelnut orchards”. One of the first things you learn in the introductory soil science classes is the importance of always keeping the soil covered. Moving forward with my career I want to continue the push for more farmers to adapt to using cover crops in their cropping systems.

Working to the Tree Tops

I worked at USDA ARS for about a year and a half working in the soil research lab. I worked in the lab processing soil samples, operating lab equipment, and collecting data in the field. I used equipment made by Li-Cor Environmental to collect greenhouse gas emission data. One of the field sites I measured was studying the effects of tile drainage on greenhouse gas emissions. The other project was studying the greenhouse gas emissions from the cover crop termination method and timing. 

I have been a member of The Oregon Society of Soil Scientists since 2020. Winter of 2022 to winter of 2023 I was on the board of directors as the student liaison. This was a great opportunity to become more connected with other soil scientists in the Pacific Northwest. This was my first time having a seat on board.

I started working at GO Seed as a research assistant in May of 2023. My advisor is the lead researcher and has taken me under her wing to teach me everything she knows. I am really happy to have the opportunity to work with soil, plant breeding, and cover crops all in the same place. I started out studying crop breeding and genetics, switched to soil science, and now I am back to working with plant breeding. It has been cool to be able to come full circle and work in different disciplines. In the fall of 2022, I went to the Tri Society meeting to present data from the cover crop termination study.

The funding for my graduate degree is provided by a USDA specialty crop block grant. I am grateful to have funding for a project that will likely have a positive impact on one of Oregon's biggest crops.

The Impact

I have had incredible opportunities to work on cutting-edge research at USDA ARS, working in the soil research lab. I was trained to use Li-Cor gas spectrometers to measure greenhouse gas emissions from soil in real-time. These machines use the interaction of specific wavelengths of light.

I should be able to wrap up my masters in about two more years. Then I plan to work as a researcher in the government sector or private industry. I want to continue building my base of knowledge to the point I can become an independent consultant. It will likely take longer than 5 years to get to that point, but that is the direction I am headed. The more educated I become the more I can charge per hour. I am developing a niche in the hazelnut industry with my work studying cover crops. I would like to continue working with cover crops in hazelnut orchards. I think it is one of the most impactful routes I can choose to study.

Always ‘Rooting’ For You

The two biggest challenges I have faced have been
1 - I am dyslexic. I have had a diagnosis since I was 8 years old. I had a difficult time learning to read. I was held back a grade when I was in elementary school to have a shot at catching back up to grade-level reading proficiency. School has never been something that came easy to me. I think of it like exercising, it gets easier the more you do it. The technology we have today gives me a huge leg up, especially when it comes to reading and writing. I can listen to audio versions of lecture material and of course the all-powerful spell check.
2 - Finances. College is expensive. I left a well-paying job working in construction management to come back to school to complete my undergrad degree. I bootstrapped my way through undergrad by working multiple jobs, taking out student loans, and applying for scholarships like it was my job. I had to borrow more money than I was hoping, but I think it will all even out in the end.

Absolute Advisor

Navigating the website while I was applying and later on signing up for classes was challenging. Having an advising session after I was accepted would have been quite helpful. This would have helped me learn how to sign up for classes and how to deal with registration holds. I had to go and find my advisor and wait to have a chance to talk to him. Once I did get a hold of him he answered all of my questions and helped me sign up for classes. Streamlining this process for incoming students would help future students. My experience being an incoming student was before the pandemic and the widespread use of video calling. Things may very well be different now that society has adapted to Zoom life.

There are many services offered at OSU that took me a long time to learn about. I was a transfer student and came to OSU starting in the winter term as a 27-year-old. My experience was much different than someone who came straight from high school to OSU and lived in the dorms their first year. It was a little tricky for me to figure out how things worked.

Oregon Origin

While working on a construction project for a prominent tech company I was informed that my team would be downsized, some people would be let go and the rest would see a reduction of hours. We had just finished a large project and the accountants decided to thin the herd. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to keep my job but at reduced hours. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was already getting pretty burnt out with my position and lost all faith in the company.

That's when I decided that I was ready to follow my passion. If I was going to be poor I might as well do something that I am truly passionate about. When I got home from work I immediately started applying to OSU. My entire family lives in Oregon, I am a third-generation Oregonian and was ready to leave the rat race and go home. I was lucky enough to be accepted to OSU and the rest is history.

Get Involved

Get involved! Join some clubs and find people with similar interests. There are so many interesting, driven, intelligent people at OSU. You are the sum of the people you spend time with, so find some cool people to hang out with.

Get involved with research or some type of part-time job involved in your intended career path. This is one of the best ways to make meaningful connections with your intended career path. And arguably more importantly helps you learn if you will enjoy your future career.