Penn State receives $2.3 million organic-agriculture research grant

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences have been awarded a $2.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate how certain cover crops and rotations can improve production of organic commodities.

The study's goal is to determine whether diverse cover crop mixtures -- as opposed to a single-species cover cropping -- can enhance ecosystem functions in a corn-soybean-wheat cash crop rotation that produces organic feed and forage, according to project leader Jason Kaye, associate professor of soil biogeochemistry.

"There has been a lot of regional interest in these mixtures, or cover crop cocktails as they are sometimes called, so we want to provide farmers with information they need to design mixtures that serve them well," he said.

"We will be planting cover crop mixtures that target nutrient supply, nutrient retention, weed suppression and management ease," Kaye said. "We'll test the idea that diverse mixtures provide these functions better than cover crops in monoculture."

The Penn State project is one of 23 in 18 states chosen for funding by USDA. The grants -- from the department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture through two sources, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and the Organic Transitions Program -- are aimed at supporting research and extension programs working to help organic producers and processors grow and market high-quality organic agricultural products.

"As more and more farmers adopt organic agriculture practices, they need the best science available to operate profitable and successful organic farms," said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy agriculture secretary, in announcing the grants. "America's brand of organic agricultural goods is world-renowned for its high quality and abundance of selection.

"These research and extension projects will give producers the tools and resources to produce quality organic food and boost farm income, boosting the 'Grown in America' brand."

Cover crops are particularly important for managing weeds and nutrients on organic farms where synthetic fertilizers and many pesticides are not allowed, Kaye said. He explained that an innovative part of the Penn State research involves measuring cover crop impacts on a suite of ecosystem functions.

"Most studies focus on one function, but we will measure simultaneous effects on nutrient supply, nutrient retention, weed suppression, insect pest regulation, soil quality, erosion control, yield and short-term profitability," he said.

"We think it is important for agricultural research to include a number of ecosystem functions because we expect tradeoffs among them. For example, treatments that maximize nutrient supply may not be optimal for weed suppression."

Kaye and his team will test cover crop treatments at Penn State's Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, about nine miles southwest of the University Park campus, and with farmer collaborators. Researchers also will work with a cover crop seed company and farmer networks to maximize the research's impact on regional organic agriculture.

Since the late 1990s, U.S. organic production has seen significant growth. U.S. producers increasingly are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.

Today, according to USDA, more than two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic products at least occasionally, and 28 percent buy organic products weekly.

But despite the growing popularity of organic foods, there is a lack of applied research and outreach to support farmer efforts to employ diverse cover crop mixtures in organic feed and forage systems, Kaye pointed out. "To fill this gap, our long-term goal is to quantify and translate the benefits and trade-offs of using diverse cover crop mixtures in organic feed rotations," he said.

Kaye suggested that using a number of cover crops to accomplish different needs aligns with the overall approach to organic production. "The use of biodiversity to enhance farm performance is deeply rooted in organic farming philosophy, reflected in the organic rule, and consistent with contemporary ecological theory," he explained.

Other researchers involved in the project at Penn State include Mary Barbercheck, professor of entomology; Dave Mortensen, professor of weed ecology; Dawn Luthe, professor of plant stress biology; Dave Hartman, extension educator based in Columbia County; Tianna DuPont, extension educator based in Northampton County; Mena Hautau, extension educator based in Berks County; Sara Cornelisse, senior extension associate in agricultural economics and rural sociology; Charles White, extension associate in entomology; and Meagan Schipanski, post-doctoral scholar in entomology.

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Last Updated November 03, 2011