by Deb Gau
Dr. Geoff Cunfer first learned to use a Geographic Information System's program at the suggestion of his advisor at the University of Texas. Now, years later, that advice has shaped his career in a big way.
Not only does Cunfer, associate professor of rural and regional studies at SMSU, teach GIS techniques to his students, but he also lends his skills to projects at the Center for Rural and Regional Studies, and conducts his own research.
GIS is a computer database program that collects information about a geographic location (population density, for example), and then displays that information graphically on a map. A display of several maps of the same area can show change in that area over time. These displays, Cunfer said, have advantages over other kinds of charts and graphs, which can show when and how often something happens, but not where it happens.
Although GIS technology came into existence about 20 years ago, it was not until the mid 1990s - about the same time Cunfer began using GIS as a graduate student - that it became widely used. Before then, desktop computers were just not powerful enough to run the program, Cunfer said. Now, GIS is being adapted for a wide variety of business purposes, from tracking retail sales to streamlining delivery routes.
"In the last ten years, the private sector has really picked up on it," said Cunfer.
One of Cunfer's main interests in GIS, however, is in using it to show how Midwestern land use has changed since the pioneer days. Using historical data going back to the 1870s, Cunfer has studied which areas of the Great Plains were most heavily farmed, when they were settled, and why their crop levels changed over time. Cunfer said the Great Plains study has kept him occupied, "in one form or another," for about eight years.
One of his conclusions proved particularly exciting: although most of the Great Plains' natural prairie environment was thought to have been destroyed by farming, only about 30 percent of the entire Plains has really been used up, Cunfer said.
"It's possibly one of our most intact biomes," he said. "It was a surprising conclusion to me."
Cunfer is currently making his Great Plains study into a book, which he says may be ready for publication next year.
The book will have "tons of maps," Cunfer said. "I think it was 133 at last count."
Cunfer's research on Midwestern farming won't stop there. He is now beginning a project, in partnership with colleagues at the University of Michigan, which will study individual farms across 25 townships in Kansas, focusing on the years between 1870 and 1940. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Grassland Settlement Project officially started on September 1, and will take four years to complete.
By studying individual farms, Cunfer said he and his colleagues hope to find out more about crop diversity on individual farms, and what effect demographic issues, like the number of people in a farmer's family, have on the diversity and success of a farm.
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