Soil and water

$ 3 million grants cover plant breeding for organic farmers


Newswise – ITHACA, NY – A national network of scientists and farmers led by Cornell University is developing new varieties of cover crops better suited to local areas and stressors – changes that could bring a multitude of benefits long-term and sustainable for organic producers.

The research was made possible by a three-and-a-half-year, $ 3 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Since the development of scientific plant breeding in the 20th century, most of the investment has been in a few major cash crops like corn and soybeans, as well as high-value vegetable and fruit crops,” Virginia said. Moore, principal researcher of the grant and assistant professor at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“Very little has been invested in ecosystem service crops, like cover crops, which have huge benefits,” Moore said.

In addition, farmers lack information on the performance of cover crops in their areas and on the varieties that might best meet their needs.

Cover crops are often grown in cultivated fields during the off-seasons, where they suppress weeds, improve soil and water quality, provide nitrogen, and provide resources for beneficial insects, including including pollinators.

The grant includes a network of partners that span across the country, including farmers and researchers from several universities, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and the Plant Material Centers of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Within the network, university and government breeders, agronomists and weed specialists will develop cover crops at research and farm sites to improve qualities such as weed control, early vigor, increased biomass, winter hardiness, seed yield, resistance to disease and insects, soft and non-glowing seed and early flowering.

In collaboration with organic farmers and seed companies, the network is focusing on breeding new varieties of hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), winter peas (Pisum sativum), crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) and cereal rye ( Secale cereale).

For hairy vetch, winter pea, and crimson clover, the current grant continues breeding efforts that began in 2015, with funds from previous grants from the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. NIFA. At the end of this current grant, the network hopes to launch new varieties of these cover crops. The new funding will also support the development of a rye cereal breeding program by 2025.

The group plans to organize participatory field days for farmers, seed companies and extension specialists, where they visit breeding plots to help assess and rank cover crops based on agronomic preferences. The researchers also aim to compile data on cover crop varieties across the country to help farmers select the right varieties for their region and cropping system.

“This project is innovative in the application of plant breeding to crop species, particularly as a collaborative and interdisciplinary national network,” said Moore. “This has the potential to have huge impacts on the adoption of cover crops by farmers and to increase the environmental benefits they offer.”

For more information, see this story from Cornell Chronicle.

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