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UF among coalition of researchers tackling sustainable agriculture

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Agriculture’s grand challenge of feeding the world’s growing population while protecting the environment recently got a big boost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) awarded eight institutions nearly $80 million to fund ground-breaking research aimed at transitioning today’s agriculture into more sustainable and resilient systems.

The AFRI-Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) program awarded $10 million to the project “Enhancing the Sustainability of U.S. Cropping Systems through Cover Crops and an Innovative Information and Technology Network,” led by Chris Reberg-Horton of North Carolina State University and Steven Mirsky of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. The funding will support a coalition of about 100 university, non-profit, and federal scientists from 35 institutions with expertise in crop management, systems modeling, social science, technology (sensing technology, computer science, and artificial intelligence/machine learning experts), and human-centered design (farmer-driven research, technology, and outreach).

Here in Florida, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is conducting research as one component of the project. The UF/IFAS researchers are:

  • Carlene Chase, a horticultural sciences associate professor, will focus on cropping systems research and lead the group of collaborating weed scientists;
  • Michael Mulvaney, an assistant professor based at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, Fla., will focus on cropping systems research and extension and quantify nitrogen availability from cover crops;
  • Danielle Treadwell, a horticultural sciences associate professor and extension specialist in sustainable and organic crop production, will also focus on cropping systems research and extension;
  • and Mickie Swisher, a family, youth and community sciences professor who specializes in sustainable agriculture, will look at the social science research component.

The five-year project aims to increase crop profitability, resilience and sustainability (regenerative agriculture) by enhancing the effectiveness of cover crop-based conservation tillage systems for commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton.

UF/IFAS researchers will investigate the impacts of cover crops on chemical and biological cycles and their influence on crop performance; water and nitrogen availability and use efficiencies; and pests, diseases and weeds. Trials will be conducted at the UF/IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, Florida, at the West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, Florida, as well as on a few commercial farms. The team will develop and deploy key technologies to support farmers through a research, design and assessment process.

“With the common experiments we and the other institutions will perform concurrently, we should get a sense of whether the results we see can be expected nationwide – for example, what conditions are conducive to pests and disease,” Chase said. “Due to the site-specific nature of the performance of cover crops, we expect the results will enable us to effectively target recommendations going forward.”

The social science research will take three approaches: (1) engagement of farmers during the design and implementation of the field research, (2) conducting assessments of on-station experiments by farmers and other stakeholders to provide feedback to the research team, and (3) facilitating a multistate Farmer Think Tank that will provide broad-based input to the project leadership to assist in the interpretation and application of research findings to farmers’ conditions.

The researchers are part of a group that makes up a precision sustainable agriculture team (http://precisionsustainableag.org/) designed to enhance research, education, and extension through real-time data flow, edge and cloud-based platforms, decision support tools, and on-farm monitoring systems. By focusing on cover crops and conservation tillage, the project will contribute to both improved profit for farmers and reduced environmental impacts of agriculture. Cover crops are plants, such as legumes, grasses and brassicas, that are grown to protect and regenerate soil and improve water, nutrient and pest management; they are not typically harvested for cash income. When cover crops and reduced tillage are used together, farmers can also accelerate carbon sequestration in the soil. These farming practices increase soil health, allowing for more climate-resilient production of food and fiber.

For more information, contact Chase (cachase@ufl.edu), Mulvaney (m.mulvaney@ufl.edu), Treadwell (ddtreadw@ufl.edu) or Swisher (mesw@ufl.edu).

Institutions involved: Aarhus University (Denmark), Applied GeoSolutions, University of Arkansas, Auburn University, Clemson University, Cornell University, University of Delaware, University of Georgia, University of Florida, Iowa State University, University of Idaho, University of Illinois, Kansas State University, University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, McGill University (Canada), University of Maryland, Michigan State University, University of Missouri, National Wildlife Federation, North Carolina State University, University of Nebraska, University of New Hampshire, The Noble Research Institute, The Ohio State University, The Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, Regional Cover Crop Councils, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Texas A&M University, University of Tennessee, USDA-ARS, University of Vermont, Virginia Tech, Washington State University, and University of Wisconsin

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

(photo by Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS)

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