MU embarks on first nationally funded research of organic farming

Sunday, December 4, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The use of cover crops to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is the focus of the first nationally funded research at MU on organic farming.

The three-year project at MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center will focus on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from the soil, weed suppression and increase of soil fertility at organic farms.

"I am extremely excited," Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the Bradford farm, said. "There was a huge hole missing in Missouri's efforts to do organic research."

The $740,000 MU grant is part of $19 million in grants to 24 institutions from U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Researchers will collaborate with the Agricultural Research Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Missouri Organic Association and local organic farmers. 

The research aims to find out the interaction between soil tillage and cover crops. Cover crops such as hairy vetch and cereal rye are grown to enrich the soil rather than for harvest. They are known to increase carbon content in the soil. Increased carbon content leads to less emission of greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

"This is the first time Missouri has got national funding for organic research targeted specifically to our needs and climate," Sue Baird, chair of the Missouri Organic Association, said. "It is a very big deal for us."

The research will help increase net profit, enhance soil fertility and aid in environmental conservation, Baird said. "Not only will organic farmers benefit from this research, even chemical farmers will."

As a state, Missouri ranks 20th in the nation for the number of organic farms, according to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture. While 38 percent of all certified organic farmers in the U.S. use no-till farming methods, only 13 percent of the organic farmers in Missouri reported having used conservation tillage.  

Kerry Clark, a research specialist at Bradford farms, believes there has not been adequate research on organic farming exclusive to Missouri.

"Farmers here do not have as much information and awareness as compared to other states and therefore have not adopted conservation methods," she said.  

"Many of our neighboring states were and are doing collaborative projects that we were not involved in since we did not have an organic program started," Reinbott said. He hopes this study will bridge that gap and initiate some collaborative research with neighboring states.  

Other states like Iowa and Pennsylvania have successfully used cover crops as a method of no-till organic farming.

A relatively few number of organic farmers in Missouri use no-till practices. Excessive tillage to get rid of weeds wastes energy and proves to be expensive for the farmer, Clark said.

"Soil compaction is a major problem among farmers in Missouri," Clark said. "This comes from excessive tillage. Our research on cover crops hopes to tackle this problem in Missouri."

Cover crops help reduce energy consumption, costs, herbicide use and erosion while helping improving the soil adding organic matter, Clark said.

The grant also involves seminars, conferences and webinars designed to connect organic farmers around Missouri. Field days and interactive sessions will be held for farmers without access to the Internet.

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