Surprisingly, almost smack-dab in the center of corn country, in Ames, IA, we find some of the most innovative research on sustainable agriculture. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (named after the turn of the century author and scientist, Aldo Leopold) is housed in Iowa State University, and it goals are to “identify and reduce negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources.” It’s latest round of research grant funding projects have come to an end and reports of the research are worth checking out to learn how people are thinking about and solving problems related to our food system.
One project looked at the effects of ongoing work on convening regional food systems working groups, noting its continued success and growth. Another studied ways to best educate and prepare farmers to grow produce for wholesale markets through farmer cooperatives (a practice that can streamline marketing and increase returns to small farmers). Another project looked at the profitability of different perennial cash crops used in agroforestry (think nut trees and Christmas trees) and found that this environmentally sustainable practice can be lucrative. While the research itself is very technical at times, project abstracts are written for most readers
One particularly interesting study looked at the ways in which carbon is stored in the soil as a conventional farm (one that might rely heavily on soil disturbance and synthetic additives like fertilizers and pesticides) transitions over into more sustainable practices. By studying the soil microbiology, they were able to identify the crops that best built soil carbon and therefore created a healthier soil.
By examining crop-microbe interactions in multiple landscape positions, PIs identified which cropping systems were best suited to increase soil carbon storage. They found that across all landscape positions switchgrass had more roots than corn, which increased the activity of soil microorganisms, especially when crops were full grown. More roots and greater microbial activity coincided with greater soil aggregation. Soil aggregation is important for storing carbon, nitrogen and water.
Go ahead, geek out on some research if you want. Or, if you are a novice agronomist, take dive into the world of agricultural studies.
PHOTO: via flickr
Leopold Center Research Results via iastate.edu