Project Highlight: Fighting Downy Mildew with Better Crop Selection
Seed crop growers of cucumbers, squash, melons, gourds and watermelons have faced severe losses in Virginia from downy mildew. To stem these losses and to reduce the economic impact, seed grower Edmund Frost used a SARE grant to find varieties of melons, cucumbers and winter squash able to withstand downy mildew. By finding such varieties, he could share results with other seed growers and gather information needed to make progress with seed production and breeding of the resistant varieties.
Frost conducted trials that identified 15 cucumber varieties with the ability to produce twice as much as standard varieties labeled “resistant,” 20 winter squash and tropical pumpkin varieties with better downy mildew resistance than other varieties, and several varieties that produce good-quality melons in areas with high downy mildew pressure.
While the identified pumpkin varieties showed downy mildew resistance, there were quality problems that Frost looked at in a second SARE-funded project. Frost made significant progress with three pumpkin varieties and shared the results with growers at two conferences. One of the seeds bred during the project, F6 Seminole-Waltham seed, is now being sold to growers.
For more information on these projects, see sare.org/projects, and search for project numbers FS13-273 and FS16-291.
Project Highlight: Cover Crops Can Thrive in the Tropics
When you live on an island perpetually faced with high import costs and limited resources, producing food in sustainable systems that rely little on off-farm inputs is more a necessity than a choice. But even then, sustainable production for growers in the U.S. Virgin Islands comes with its own challenges, as the tropical climate fuels an endless onslaught of weeds, pests, diseases and low soil fertility.
“Anything we can do to help our farmers sustainably manage these burdens and become more successful is important to us,” said Stuart Weiss, an agroecologist with University of Virgin Islands Extension. This need has prompted Weiss to explore the use of cover crops as a means to tackle issues with soil fertility and pests. Using two SARE grants, he has led efforts to find cover crops, many of them legumes, that could thrive in tropical conditions and bring the most benefit to farmers, and to identify effective ways to manage them in no-till systems.
The researchers demonstrated the value of cover crops enough that 18 small-scale farms began using them during the course of the projects. Sunn hemp showed the most promise. Requiring no external inputs to grow, it provided excellent weed suppression and contributed more to soil fertility than other cover crop species.
For more information on these projects, see sare.org/projects, and search for project numbers OS11-062 and LS12-252.
Project Highlight: Training for a Sustainable Agriculture Future
Thousands of Texas ranchers hurt by drought are seeking new ways to make their land profitable. Large Texas farms are being subdivided. Farms of all sizes are now in closer contact with non-agricultural communities due to urban growth. Agriculture in Texas is changing, and the technical professionals who support producers must keep up by learning innovative, research-based production and marketing strategies relevant to their clientele’s interests. This need prompted Texas A&M Extension educators to organize a SARE-funded training program on the sustainable and organic practices that are of emerging interest to Texas’ farmers and ranchers. The program reached 45 employees of Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M Extension, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. It included hands-on farm training conducted at six locations, with classroom presentations and discussions over four days. Eleven farmers and ranchers served as trainers during the on-site visits. Participants reported back on what they did in their communities as a result of their involvement in the program. Five months after conclusion of the training, they brought information about sustainable and organic practices to 1,000 farmers in 37 different counties through a combination of events and one-on-one outreach.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number ES13-120.
Project Highlight: Cover Crops Help Manage Appletree Borer
The flatheaded appletree borer (FAB) is a significant economic pest in orchards, nurseries and urban landscapes, and in Tennessee’s production nurseries, red maples are one of the most problematic trees for FAB attacks. Determined to find a solution to this problem, Tennessee State University researcher Karla Addesso and her project team used a SARE grant to evaluate the efficacy of applying a winter cover crop to field-grown nursery red maple trees to act as a barrier to FAB oviposition, an aid to preventing leaching of imidacloprid (a commonly used insecticide) from the root zone of the trees, and as a natural weed suppression technique.
After trying a few mixes, the team determined that a ryegrass/crimson clover mix was extremely effective at camouflaging the tree trunks from the pest, making it less likely to lay eggs. The cover crops reduced pest attacks by 95 percent. In addition to acting as a barrier, the cover crop mix also reduced the temperatures of the tree trunks, making the trees a less preferable egg-laying site.
Based on their highly promising results, the team proposes a systems approach to in-field nursery tree production by incorporating a winter cover crop combined with optimized pesticide use to simultaneously maximize FAB control and plant growth while minimizing crop damage, weed competition and insecticide runoff.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number OS14-084.
Project Highlight: Fruit Bagging Reduce Reliances on Pesticides
When Clemson University fruit specialist Juan Carlos Melgar suggested putting a paper bag over a peach to detract insects and diseases during production, farmers laughed. But when his SARE-funded trials showed that the technique protects the fruit from devastating brown rot, marauding insects like plum curculio and even hungry birds, producers and backyard growers started paying attention.
Researchers found that bagging peaches between petal fall and harvest reduces pesticide use while increasing yields and maintaining flavor. Even though it involves more labor, Melgar estimated that bagging can increase revenue by $95 per tree in an organic system when the fruit is sold directly to consumers. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from farmers all over the country as a result of the research study,” said Melgar.
Fruit bagging for protection is a common strategy in Asia. With South Carolina ranked second in the nation behind California in peach production at 77,000 tons, researchers at Clemson felt that applying the technique to orchards was a worthwhile endeavor because peach growers in the southeastern U.S. face very high pest and disease pressures. Melgar is taking this research to a regional level with a newly acquired $1 million USDA-NIFA grant, applying the technique to more orchards in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number OS16-094.
Project Highlight: Cover Crops Improve Soil in Plantain Crops
Cover crops bring many benefits to farming systems, from protecting the soil against erosion to suppressing weeds to improving yields and profitability through healthier soil. In Puerto Rico, a team of researchers, educators and service providers used a SARE grant to start bringing these benefits to one of the island’s main crops, the plantain.
Starting In 2013, the research team conducted on-farm experiments to identify cover crops species that could be intercropped with plantains to improve soil health. They focused on jack beans, sunnhemp and sorghum, planted as cover crops both individually and as mixes. The team collected soil samples to measure soil fertility, microbial activity and other indicators of soil health, and they made some important discoveries that should help Puerto Rico farmers make informed decisions about using cover crops. Jack beans established most successfully and showed the most promise overall, whereas rodents and heavy rains impacted the sorghum, and the sunnhemp performed well but was more susceptible to weather conditions than the jack beans.
Most importantly, the cover crop trials revealed an economic benefit. To achieve yields of high-quality plantains by market standards, no nematicides were needed and fungicide applications were reduced 78 percent—representing a cost savings to the farmer.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number FS13-271.
Project Highlight: Growing a Local Understanding of Soil Health
Some farming practices commonly used in Oklahoma have reduced the state’s soil quality, leading to soils that are often low in organic matter. To remain productive, attention needs to be placed on improving and monitoring soil quality.
Realizing the importance of such attention, Kefyalew Desta used a SARE grant to obtain local soil quality information and develop a soil quality assessment index that can be used to quantify the overall soil quality status of a farm. As Desta was testing soil properties on-farm, 65 percent of the owners participated in the sampling and discussed the results.
This engagement of the farmers paid off. According to Desta, at the beginning of the project, 65 percent of them did not know the difference between soil health and soil fertility. Following the on-farm sampling and trainings, 80 percent of the farmers are now communicating with ag educators to seek help in soil health analysis. At least 60 percent plan to use on-site soil quality testing as part of their routine soil management. Desta also coordinated in-service trainings and demonstrations, reaching over 200 people.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number OS11-058.
Project Highlight: Local Food Systems as a Means of Positive Change
For 10 years, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) worked to evaluate the impacts of local food systems on farm profitability and viability, production practices, distribution networks and the health of local communities. Their belief is that when the distance between consumer and producer decreases, transparency increases and drives changes in the way food is produced. Their decades-long work, however, led to unanswered questions, such as how are consumer values and behaviors impacting the characteristics of the local food system? What are the unintended consequences of localizing food production and consumption?
To find answers, ASAP has received three SARE grants since 2011 to examine the impacts of food system localization on local economies, farm profitability, production practices and health. In their first project they analyzed data and developed a working theoretical framework to understand how and why local food systems can be a means of creating positive food system change. Their two additional projects are 1) studying the impact of farmers’ market experiences on participants and their role in building a base of local food and farm supporters, and 2) quantifying the larger economic impact of farmers’ markets and looking more closely at their relationship to larger local food system dynamics.
For more information on these projects, see sare.org/projects, and search for project numbers LS11-239, LS14-260 and LS17-285.
Project Highlight: Advancing Opportunities for Women Farmers
Women farmers accounted for 30 percent of farmers nationwide in 2012, according to the Census of Agriculture, and 14 percent of them were principal operators. But while those numbers are encouraging, support and outreach is needed to increase those numbers and to sustain the women already involved in agriculture.
That is why organizations like Annie’s Project, a national risk-management education program for women launched in 2003, is so needed. Its 2012 SARE grant allowed the program to expand its reach by conducting two training events in Mississippi where Extension educators from across the South gathered to learn how to conduct Annie’s Project workshops. A typical Annie’s Project workshop brings in guest speakers from local agricultural businesses to discuss topics such as finances, human resources and marketing with local women farmers. The SARE-funded trainings drew 63 Extension educators from 12 universities—including three historically black universities—and many went on to conduct workshops in their communities. In Mississippi alone, more than 16 educators went on to hold local Annie’s Project workshops.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number ES12-113.
Project Highlight: Summer Cover Crops Can Boost Fall Sales
Using summer cover crops to improve soil health on farms in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama has the potential to boost production of organic vegetable crops grown for local sale. Enhanced production would help meet the large increase in demand for local produce, especially in direct markets. In these states, fall through spring is the chief growing time, with summer fields typically left fallow. However, very few studies on the use of cover crops in Gulf Coast states exist. Carl Motsenbocker aimed to fill the gap in knowledge by using a SARE grant to study the influence of summer cover crop systems on fall organic vegetable crops in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Through replicated cover crop studies—some conducted on cooperating farms—Motsenbocker did, in fact, find that several summer cover crops bode well for use in organic vegetable production.
Field days and demonstrations held over the course of the project provided information to more than 150 vegetable growers about the potential of these cover crops. At these events, the project team answered frequent questions about summer crops and vegetables from other interested parties. Importantly, Motsenbocker reported relationships being developed among Alcorn State University, Alabama A&M University, Mississippi State University, and the Louisiana State University Ag Center scientists.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects and search for project number LS10-230.
Project Highlight: Training Ag Professionals on Sustainable Vegetable Production Methods
Kentucky is home to numerous small, limited-resource farms. More than 75 percent of the state’s 85,000 farms are smaller than 180 acres and 80 percent have an annual income under $25,000, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Tobacco used to be an attractive option for these growers because it was highly profitable at small acreages compared to other crops, but that has changed with the elimination of price supports and marketing quotas.
Extension professionals at state universities in Kentucky and Tennessee are working to fill the void left by tobacco by increasing the acreage of sustainably farmed and certified organic vegetables. For this to happen, training in sustainable and organic vegetable farming for agricultural professionals who work closely with small-scale farmers is critical. With a SARE grant, a team led by the University of Kentucky collaboratively sponsored hands-on workshops, regional farm tours, training materials, videos and websites for farm educators.
The team trained 150 ag professionals and 150 growers. Prior to the training, many of the participants expressed their discomfort with organic vegetable production. Yet nearly 200 attended a field day heavily featuring organic production just a few years later, indicating a growing interest on their part.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number ES10-101.
Project Highlight: Wildflower Plots Boost Yields and Pollinators
The extensive loss in managed honeybee hives seen in recent years poses serious challenges to the farmers who grow crops that require pollination. Lower yields and higher pollination costs are the main threats to their businesses. Part of the solution is native bees. Across the country, far-sighted researchers and farmers are recognizing the importance of finding practices that increase native bee populations before a larger crisis hits.
In Georgia, one such farmer, Joe Dickey, has used two SARE grants to study the native bees present in his apple orchards and to establish wildflower plots that support their numbers. The effect on his apple crop was immediate: In 2016, apple production rose 30 percent from the previous two years when the wildflowers were absent from his orchard. Dickey’s next step is to compare annual wildflowers to perennial wildflowers to see which type is best at recruiting native bees.
At the same time, Dickey has been collaborating with Georgia Gwinnett College researcher Mark Schlueter on a series of five SARE grants to identify which native bees are best at pollinating apples. After looking at dozens of species, Schlueter discovered a mining bee that outshines the rest as an apple pollinator which farmers should prioritize. For more information on these projects, see sare.org/projects, and search for project numbers FS16-290 and FS17-296.
Project Highlight: Grafted Specialty Tomatoes More Resilient
Demand for organic heirloom and specialty tomatoes grown in high tunnels is rising, making them high-value crops. Unfortunately, growers of such tomatoes in Florida face challenges in managing soil-borne diseases. Due to Fusarium wilt, one farm faced the complete crop failure of a tomato popular in the local market. University of Florida researcher Xin Zhao partnered with the farm, Frog Song Organics, to see if grafting with resistant rootstocks would control soil-borne diseases in organic high tunnel production systems.
Their experiment compared grafted and non-grafted specialty tomatoes for soil-borne disease resistance, yield and fruit quality. They found that grafting was an effective tool for managing Fusarium wilt and improving the overall health of tomato plants. Yields significantly improved in grafted tomato production compared with non-grafted controls. Even with higher production costs associated with the grafting, the grafted plants resulted in increased net profits.
One hundred professionals and 450 farmers learned of the rewarding research findings at workshops and presentations. Zhao views this on-farm research project as a successful demonstration of technology transfer through a collaborative and productive partnership with local growers to address production issues.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number OS13-083.
Project Highlight: Maximizing Cover Crop Use in High Tunnels
Cover crops are becoming a vital tool in soil management, yet vegetable growers who use high tunnels may decline to plant them inside structures due to a variety of factors. In the warm indoor environment, cover crops could potentially provide habitat for overwintering pests. Economically, the benefits may not seem clear since there are fewer off-season periods for a cover crop to fill and growers in such a capital-intensive system may not want to use valuable ground for a crop that has no immediate return.
Funded by a SARE grant, University of Arkansas graduate student Luke Freeman sought to determine the optimum timing for planting cover crops in Southern high tunnels to minimize the negatives and maximize the benefits. Cover crops can be beneficial in high tunnels for reducing nitrogen fertilizer use and improving soil quality. Since local growers stated that mid-November through mid-February was the least productive season, Freeman researched four winter cover crops, followed by summer tomatoes and fall broccoli, during that time period.
He found that winter peas contributed a greater amount of biomass nitrogen than all other treatments. This led to a 48 percent increase in mean tomato yield compared to the control. Sharing these results gives Southern high tunnel vegetable growers a better understanding of the benefits of cover crops.
For more information on this project, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number GS14-136.
Project Highlight: Physical Pest Exclusion with Shade Cloth
Insect pressure is one of the major challenges of vegetable production in the Deep South, where the weather is warm and humid. Repeated applications of pesticides are expensive and time consuming for the farmer, unappeal-ing to many consumers and potentially harmful to the environment. Yet pest damage significantly lowers the value of fresh market produce, presenting grow-ers with a difficult problem to solve.
Seeking a good alternative to re-peated pesticide applications, Fairhope, Ala., farmer Will Mastin used a SARE grant to experiment with physical pest exclusion inside an existing high tunnel. Working with an Alabama Extension entomologist, Mastin outfitted a high tunnel with a woven mesh fabric and compared tomato production inside the tunnel to the open field. In one season, the result was impressive: In the tunnel, only 10-20 percent of tomatoes were lost to pests, whereas in the field losses were 80-100 percent.
Pest exclusion with shade cloth holds promise for Alabama growers as Mastin has identified areas to continue exploring. Air temperature is one issue, because it gets hot inside the tunnel when airflow is diminished. Another is the most effective way of including ben-eficial insects, since they cannot get into the tunnel on their own.
For more information on this proj-ect, see sare.org/projects, and search for project number FS13-275.