Nov 26, 2019
Penn State research projects awarded USDA organic agriculture grants

Three organic-agriculture projects led by faculty members in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and 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 existing and transitioning organic livestock and crop producers adopt organic practices and improve their market competitiveness.

Receiving grants 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 to benefit 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 function but are unsure how to manage microbial populations effectively,” Bell said. “Soil microorganisms are increasingly important as farmers transition to organic agriculture, as microbial services need to replace benefits that would otherwise have been provided by chemical inputs.”

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

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

Using ‘smart tillage’ to reduce nitrogen losses

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

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

Kemanian explained that prior research shows that emissions are high when plowing legume cover crops or when these cover crops are co-located with manure and plowed in.

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

Kemanian noted that the project also will look at novel ways of monitoring oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in the plow layer through imaging, which can produce potent visuals for educational and extension activities.

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

Enlisting fungi for crop growth and pest management

A grant of more than $344,000 will support Barbercheck’s project, which is aimed at enlisting beneficial fungi to assist in promoting plant growth and managing insects and diseases.

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

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

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


An insect infected with Metarhizium robertsii fungus. A USDA organic agriculture grant recently awarded to Penn State will support research on enlisting M. robertsii to assist in plant growth and pest management. Photo: Mary Barbercheck

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