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Faculty receive funding to study organic foods

Organic is one of the most dynamic and fast-growing segments of the U.S. agricultural market. It is also an increasingly important engine of growth for New York state, with more than 1,400 certified organic operations as of 2016.

Researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have been granted nearly $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture to pursue research that will bolster the success of organic farmers and those pursuing a transition to organic production.

Cornell supports organic agriculture through numerous research and extension activities that provide research-based decision support for new and existing producers.

“Expanding consumer demand for organic products presents market opportunities for New York farmers,” said Abby Seaman, co-chair of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Organic Production and Marketing Program Work Team. “These and previously funded projects bring substantial resources to enable Cornell to address production challenges and help growers successfully meet these opportunities.”

Researchers’ efforts will be aimed at:

  • Improving soil fertility: Given restrictions on use of synthetic nitrogen in organic production, producers rely on legume cover crops as a source of nitrogen. Vetch, an important cover crop in colder climates, can be highly variable in its performance, making it difficult to manage soil fertility. Laurie Drinkwater, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), and Julie Grossman at the University of Minnesota, will examine how soil fertility, plant genotype and root-colonizing nitrogen-fixing bacteria all influence nitrogen fixation by hairy vetch in organic systems. Their findings will be communicated in curricula for growers and educators describing legume biology and management.
  • Managing disease with cover crops: Cover crops can play an important role in suppression of weeds and plant disease. Sarah Pethybridge, assistant professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section of SIPS, and Matt Ryan, assistant professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section of SIPS, will conduct research on the impacts of a no-till cover crop rotation system on disease and weed management in soybeans and dry beans. This approach has the added benefit of improving soil health while reducing labor and fuel costs. Recommendations resulting from these studies will be communicated through on-farm demonstrations and farmer-to-farmer learning.
  • Developing technology to store apples: Maintenance of produce after harvest is another area where organic producers are seeking a greater range of options. Chris Watkins, professor in the Horticulture Section of SIPS and director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, is collaborating with Robin Dando, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, to assess the potential of dynamic controlled atmosphere (DCA), a new apple storage technology to replace synthetic ripening inhibitors. DCA storage will be evaluated for its effectiveness in maintaining quality and sensory properties and, if successful, may provide a preferred alternative for conventional growers and storage operators, as well.

Magdalen Lindeberg is assistant director of the School of Integrative Plant Science and senior research associate in the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.

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Lindsey Hadlock