Telephone interviews provide reporters a quick and inexpensive means of gathering information, but rarely do they offer the kind of insights, glimpses of personality and charm that one gets with a face-to-face conversation. Sara Kovachich may be the exception.

Ms. Kovachich is the second place winner in the undergraduate category of the Future of Southern Agriculture student essay contest, sponsored by Syngenta and Farm Press Publications. Her confidence, intelligence and personality flow through phone lines as easily as water runs through a well-maintained irrigation pipe.

A rising junior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Kovachich is majoring in environmental science and is interested in working in several fields, including irrigation system efficiency or some other sustainable water use program.

“The environmental issues are the keys,” she said. “An environmental science-based curriculum offers a lot of options.”

She’s planning on graduate school after finishing her degree at Florida and will start narrowing down the search this year.

“I still have research to do to find the best fit for graduate school,” she said. She mentioned curriculum, professors and location as part of her search criteria. “I may stay in state but I’m also interested in studying abroad in either Spain or Latin America.” Spanish has been part of her undergraduate work and she has good memories of the two weeks she spent in Costa Rica. She would like to merge her language studies with environmental science.

Kovachich talked about the influences that led her to pursue a degree and a career in environmental science.

“My grandparents had a big yard full of palm trees. When I was just little I enjoyed watering plants and later pollinating flowers. I want to continue to work with plants and want to have an opportunity to work outdoors and not be stuck inside.”

Her ambition is palpable as is her commitment to conservation as she talks about issues she hopes to tackle. In her essay she discussed ways farmers can improve water management.

“Water conservation requires a comprehensive analysis of water’s interaction with the environment and its dynamics in agriculture. The application of water conservation methods greatly depends on the type of crop production and environment, and the integration of many conservation methods leads to the most effective approach to water conservation.”

She said engineered crops, improved irrigation systems — such as subsurface drip irrigation — and use of recycled water also will play important roles in stretching diminishing water supplies.

And the responsibility goes beyond the farm gate.

“In order to make such changes in agricultural water applications, national and regional policy makers need to set regulations to enforce sustainable water use. Governments play a crucial role in identifying water rights, distributing water and facilitating the construction of infrastructure. Besides protecting water resources, governments need to provide incentives to farmers to maintain healthy soils, improve irrigation practices, and adopt water conservation techniques.”

Kovachich plans to use the $4000 essay prize as a nest egg to help finish her bachelor’s degree or get started in grad school.

“My goal is to become financially independent as soon as possible. So I’ll put the money in the bank.” She said it will be available when she needs it. She’s worked to help defray college costs and expects to continue to do so.

After a few minutes chatting with Sara Kovachich, this reporter felt like he’d known this young woman for years. She is forthcoming, enthusiastic, pleasant and intelligent. She’s a good interview, knowledgeable about her topic and eager to discuss her ideas.

Any graduate school will be lucky to get her and any future employer will be fortunate to have her on the payroll.

To view Kovachich’s winning essay, go to www.FutureofSouthernAg.com and click “View the Complete List of 2010 Winners.