Penn State Research Projects Win USDA Organic Farming Grants

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three organic agriculture projects led by faculty members at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Agriculture.

The funding, totaling more than $1.3 million, was awarded through USDA-NIFA’s Organic Transitions program, which supports research, education, and extension efforts to help livestock producers and of existing and transitioning organic crops to adopt organic practices and improve their market competitiveness.

The grants received were projects led by Terrence Bell, assistant professor of phytobiomes, Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling, and Mary Barbercheck, professor of entomology.

Managing soil microbes for crops

Bell’s $500,000 grant will help researchers better understand the role of soil microorganisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, for certified organic and transitioning farmers.

“Many organic farmers understand that soil microorganisms are important for soil functioning, but don’t know how to effectively manage microbial populations,” Bell said. “Soil microorganisms are increasingly important as farmers transition to organic farming, as microbial services must replace the benefits that would otherwise have been provided by chemical inputs.”

For example, he said essential plant nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, exist mostly in forms that plants cannot use. Soil microorganisms can transform these nutrients into forms usable by plants, thus limiting the need for fertilizer additions.

Working with partner farmers and as part of a long-term organic agriculture project at Penn State, Bell and his team will examine how soil type and farming practices interact with passive and active microbial management. They plan to share their findings through educational extension programs to help farmers understand the role of soil microorganisms in organic farming.

Using “smart tillage” to reduce nitrogen losses

A team led by Kemanian will use their nearly $500,000 grant to develop a “smart tillage” system to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from organic production systems.

“Organic grain and forage production relies on tillage, manure and cover crops to manage weeds and nutrients,” Kemanian said. “But it creates challenges in controlling nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen leaching.”

Kemanian explained that previous research shows emissions are high when plowing legume cover crops or when those cover crops are co-located with manure and plowed under.

“Growers, whether using organic or conventional production methods, need to control these harmful nitrogen losses,” he said. “We propose “intelligent tillage” to creatively regulate the distribution and concentration of cover crop residues and manure residues in the tillage layer, reducing nitrous oxide emissions during the peak emission phase. , which is the maize phase of the crop rotation.”

Kemanian noted that the project will also look at new ways to monitor oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in the plow layer through imagery, which can produce powerful visuals for educational and outreach activities.

“Reducing nitrogen losses and preserving productivity are priorities for environmentally friendly and economically dynamic organic agriculture,” he said.

Enlistment of fungi for crop growth and pest control

A grant of more than $344,000 will support Barbercheck’s project, which aims to recruit beneficial fungi to promote plant growth and control insects and disease.

“Fungal endophytes are fungi that grow in plants, with either neutral or beneficial effects,” she said. “Endophytes inhabit the tissues of most plants, including crops, and can promote crop growth and suppress insect pests and plant diseases.”

In field experiments, the Barbercheck team will assess the effects of soil and crop management practices on a natural beneficial fungus, Metarhizium robertsii, which is pathogenic to insects in soil and can grow in plants. The study will examine the frequency, timing and intensity of tillage, cover crop species and soil characteristics.

“In greenhouse experiments, we will determine how competitive this soil fungus is with other soil organisms and how water stress affects the ability of the fungus to form a beneficial endophytic relationship with maize plants,” a- she declared. “Overall, we will gain a better understanding of the benefits and trade-offs of M. robertsii for crop plants and how to maintain this fungus in the soil to improve crop production.”

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