Forever Green's New Crop of Researchers

During a recent Land Stewardship Letter roundtable discussion about Forever Green (see "Forever Green: Relaying Resiliency" blog), eight University of Minnesota graduate students working on the initiative responded to the question, “What excites you most about this research?”

New Tools Have Compressed Time

Kevin Dorn has been mapping the genome for pennycress, which holds potential for serving as a cover “relay crop” that protects the soil while increasing overall production of oilseeds on soybean acres:

“This is a particularly exciting time to be a plant scientist because of the amazing tools and technologies that have been developed within the biological sciences that have wide reaching implications for agriculture. The grand challenges that are before us are daunting, but the tools to address these problems are now available and the base knowledge that’s been laid down before us is going to drive that work and make it feasible. It’s not a ‘Hopefully in 30 years…’ kind of thing. It’s a ‘If we keep at this for another five years, we’ll see some pretty amazing things happen.’ ”

Solutions = Opportunities

Kevin Anderson is working on the agronomics of getting relay crops integrated into row crop systems:

“We’re addressing several large scale and serious side effects of conventional agriculture and we’re doing that by creating a new opportunity in a system that can develop quickly. So you can say in five years this could change the landscape in Minnesota.”

Benefits for Farmers & Public

Michelle Dobbratz is working with kura clover as a living mulch:

“We are developing solutions for producers that can enable them to adopt practices that provide more ecosystem services. We’re actually giving them options that they want, that can benefit themselves and the public.”

Food & Environmental Security

• Matthew Ott is working on assessing environmental benefits of getting winter camelina, pennycress, tillage radish and winter rye on the landscape. He is also working on developing a high yielding variety of camelina:

“Crops like camelina and pennycress are solving problems of food security too because they’re not competing with the food supply necessarily. And because they are oilseeds, they actually contribute to food production. You can also get biofuels from them that, unlike corn ethanol for instance, don’t compete with the food supply, which is hugely important. And there’s a real-time, cash, economic benefit from camelina and pennycress. And that real-time incentive can be a game changer as far as getting cover crops on the landscape.”

A Greener Outlook

Claire Flavin is working on a hairy vetch breeding project:

“I view cover crops through the ecosystem services lens. Hairy vetch, for example, can typically provide the necessary amount of nitrogen for a lot of crops, including corn. Implementing cover crops into the system and incorporating them into the soil prior to planting corn would alleviate the need for so much synthetic nitrogen as well as reduce a lot of the leaching that we’re seeing in the landscape. Hairy vetch flowers are also beautiful, and provide resources for pollinators and beneficial insect predators. So, how do you convince the public? I think people are starting to recognize that these environmental services really do have value, and who wouldn’t like to see a little more green on the landscape?”

No-Till & Organic Weed Control

Peyton Ginakes is working on a project to determine how to manage kura clover as a living mulch in a reduced tillage system:

“I’m really excited about providing realistic methods to farmers for management. I work a lot in organic and low input systems and when I go to a conference and start talking to an organic grower it’s really hard to say to them, ‘Please use no-till practices,’ because it’s just not realistic. If you can make these conservation practices easier to do, you’re not talking past your audience anymore.”

Increasing the Per-Acre Value

Dan Raskin is working on a double crop high value forage rotation utilizing a planted pea and barley forage mix followed by a short-season grain or silage crop:

“I think in a lot of ways, the public discourse around the benefits of cover cropping is pretty advanced. I can’t speak for the willingness to actualize toward that on the part of farmers. But one thing I’m excited about is seeing all these as a suite of options, ranging from bigger new projects to smaller tweaks. The double cropping studies are an example of a smaller tweak on previously adapted systems that maybe show success elsewhere, but are adopted specifically for Minnesota. But what we found was there was research in the past showing economic or ecological benefits of a double cropping system, but it comes with a significant yield hit. And so we’re trying to compensate that yield hit by increasing the value of the forage that could work in this kind of system. The more options there are, the more implementation on actual farms is going to be likely.”

Working on Solutions, Not Just Problems

Kayla Altendorf is working on a pennycress breeding project:

“What excites me is to have the opportunity to learn a new skill where I can improve a new species that actually has the potential to change agriculture in a positive way in a really short amount of time. I was an environmental studies major as an undergrad and I remember learning repeatedly about the problems, but there was never any discussion about the solutions. That’s why I feel so grateful and so empowered to learn the skills that could allow me to actually do something about these problems.”