This article is from
Creation 44(4):44–47, October 2022

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Science, farming, and faith

Ron Neller interviews agricultural systems researcher, Dr Ken Rickert

Dr Ken Rickert, B.Sc, M.Sc, Ph.D., was an agricultural scientist before his retirement, focusing on sustainable and profitable agricultural systems. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural science are from The University of Queensland, Australia, and his PhD is from The University of Western Australia. Ken’s initial work with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries focused on modelling pasture and beef production. Between 1984 and 2001 he held senior positions at the Queensland Agricultural College and later at The University of Queensland.

All photos supplied by Dr Ken RickertRickert-family
Ken and Jan Rickert (right) with their three daughters (L to R) Natasha, Cheryl, and Tricia.

“The Bible is true and science is true, and therefore each, if truly read, but proves the truth of the other.”—Matthew Maury, 1806–1873, the pioneer of oceanography. Similarly, Dr Ken Rickert points out,

Christian scientists who study natural laws and processes should feel closer to God through better appreciating His creative and sustaining powers

Ken thus reflects what many Christian scientists have expressed—that science and biblical faith are complementary, not contradictory.

Early years

Ken inspecting natural grassland grazed by cattle near Toowoomba in Queensland.

Ken was born in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, in 1944. He was raised in the Christian faith by a prayerful mother, his grandmothers, and Sunday School teachers. This led him to commit to Christ when he was studying at university. Ken says he was further blessed when he met another Christian student named Jan at the university in his fourth year of study. She specialized in agricultural economics. The two married and committed themselves to following Jesus together, serving and growing in Christ as Saviour and Lord. This became even more of a priority as parents with three daughters, and in later years as grandparents of 10 grandchildren.

Having been born in a rural environment, Ken developed a lifelong passion to understand agricultural and natural sciences. This is a complex area that involves the study of the growth and reproduction of both plants and animals, as well as soils, water relations, and weather patterns.

The need to understand all these topics was well demonstrated through Ken’s master’s research on establishing pastures on heavy clay soils. This is a challenging topic as heavy clay soils are likely to be poorly structured and not friable (do not break up but form large clods). Rainwater can further disrupt this structure and may prevent the soils from accepting water.

For his Ph.D., he undertook further study of these complex soil-plant-atmosphere systems. This equipped him with new skills and knowledge to work in pasture management. Ken and colleagues focused on developing computer simulation models of pasture and beef production in northern Australia. He was an early player in this activity, which has expanded greatly since he moved to academia in 1984.

Recent versions of the models developed are contained on a Queensland government website (longpaddock.qld.gov.au). This provides guidance for government, industry, and farmers.1 He credits the whole experience as highlighting the way computer models are “a repository for past research, as well as a precursor for future research.”

While complex, these studies also helped Ken to accept a creator God. Indeed, God commanded Adam to be a farmer after the Fall:

“Therefore the Lord God sent him [Adam] out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23).

Today the challenge for farmers and the wider community is to feed the world’s growing population of about 8 billion, preferably in an ecologically sustainable, financially profitable, and socially acceptable manner. These objectives involve a paddock-to-plate view of improved food production and distribution. That is, better agricultural systems for the full range of farm sizes, from large corporate enterprises to small family or community farms.

Travel to historical sites such as Petra in Jordan—an opportunity for learning and adventure.

Growth in science and faith

Knowledge and technologies have grown rapidly over recent decades, allowing scientists to more readily explore the complexity of natural and agricultural systems. Ken says, “To me, the new findings that continue to emerge are pointers to a master Creator”.

Elaborating to me on this, Ken used sunlight as an example of God’s handiwork. As an agricultural scientist, he knew how sunlight sustains all life on Earth and controls our weather and climate. Ken noted that energy from the sun, and its implications, are described by several elegant natural laws and processes. The scope, elegance, simplicity, and importance of these laws and processes for life on Earth show him that:

(1) Such laws could not be the result of chance; and

(2) The general theory of evolution, which is ultimately based on chance, is clearly flawed.

Ken’s awareness of the many laws and processes in nature convinced him years ago that their existence and operation were highly consistent with the biblical account of creation. Since then, he said, “CMI publications have strongly reinforced that belief”.

With his experience in research, Ken accepted a position as Senior Lecturer (and later as Reader, a position equivalent to full professor in the US) in agricultural systems at the Queensland Agricultural College. The research aimed to improve both sustainability and productivity. Later this college merged with The University of Queensland and Ken was appointed Head of the Department of Plant Production.

Upon his retirement from academia, Ken became involved in an AusAID project in Papua New Guinea. He also edited a book on the challenges facing the intensive farming systems in the Netherlands and the extensive farming systems in Australia. (Intensive farming = high inputs of machinery, chemicals, labour, and capital to gain maximum yield from small land areas. Extensive farming = relatively low input over a larger area, often using more ‘traditional’ methods.)

During his professional career Ken had no conflict in his journey in science and faith. Quite the opposite, he says: “I felt privileged in discovering more and more evidence of God’s awesome creation.” Regretfully, he feels that this is becoming more difficult in schools and universities today due to changing attitudes. “During my years in university, Christian views were generally tolerated, and not repudiated like they often are today.”

 A nostalgic visit by Ken to the research station near Gayndah in Queensland where his research career commenced in 1968.

Further perspectives

In his scientific career, Ken was mostly involved in operational research, rather than historical or origins research. A scientist who undertakes operational research endeavours to understand how things work in today’s world. Scientists such as Ken would conduct many field trials or glasshouse trials. During these trials they would change various parameters in the field or change glasshouse conditions to improve productivity and sustainability.

Ken feels those who use operational science to study natural systems should always be open-minded. “They should follow the truth, and rigorously review existing information to formulate a hypothesis, which can be tested.”

A historical or origins scientist seeks more to understand the origin of things in the past. While this approach to science is not readily verifiable through laboratory or field experiments, origins scientists should also be open-minded, and always follow the truth. He says: “The outright rejection of the biblical account of creation is an example of a narrow-minded approach to historical science.”

Ken explains further:

The physical elements of our cosmos, universe, Earth’s climate, and plant and animal life are underpinned by a vast number of natural laws and processes. Some of these laws were discovered by great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton who believed his work supported God’s creation. Likewise, more recent discoveries, such as the genetic codes, also point convincingly to God’s creation rather than chance developments.

Ken adds to this by saying that because God’s creation includes the interdependence of the physical elements of creation (both visible and invisible) and natural laws and processes, “Christian scientists who study or apply natural laws and processes should feel closer to God through better appreciating His creative and sustaining powers.” Being a scientist myself, I felt that this was a wonderfully perceptive comment by Ken, one that can be used when speaking to others.

Farming systems, here involving trees, forages, and cattle, are intriguing fields for operational research. The ecological interrelationships point to divine design.

As a research scientist, Ken was blessed with opportunities for overseas travel, enabling him to speak with other scientists and compare their findings. On two of these occasions, Ken and his wife Jan were able to visit biblical sites in Israel. Ken expressed to us that just as he needed to undertake professional development as a scientist, both he and Jan have undertaken spiritual development and training in their Christian walk. In addition to attending their local church they have also attended and completed many courses and renewal camps and programs.

By daily prayer, reading and meditating on the Bible and other sound Christian sources; by interacting with other believers, and through practices of worship, personal Christian study and courses; through outreach to nonbelievers, and by helping the poor. In other words, by following the commands of Jesus. To paraphrase Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9–11—keep growing in knowledge and understanding for the glory and praise of God.

Posted on homepage: 19 February 2024

References and notes

  1. The site name, ‘The Long Paddock’, comes from a vast historic network of droving tracks and trails in the inland east of the country. These linked stock-breeding areas with markets and provided an escape route from drought-stricken areas. Drovers would graze their stock alongside the long stretches of unfenced road, hence the name. Parts of it are still in use. Return to text.

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