For 10 years, foundation of anonymous alumna has been funding sustainability projects

For a decade, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has been funding fledging projects pertaining to sustainable agriculture -- such as developing an organic grape-growing and winemaking course and a project to combat tomato leaf disease in high tunnel systems -- with almost $550,000 from a Massachusetts-based organization founded by an anonymous, eco-minded Cornell alumna.

The Toward Sustainability Foundation (TSF) has been bolstering Cornell's sustainability research with a steady stream of gifts since 1999. About 75 faculty and student projects that examine the technological, social, political and economic elements of sustainable agriculture have benefited.

This year, for the first time, TSF awarded grant money to the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF), a multidisciplinary research program that encourages scientists at Cornell to collaborate on sustainability issues. CCSF used a $40,000 TSF gift to help cover basic research expenses for two projects chosen by its Academic Venture Fund. The TSF funds will also support graduate students on the projects.

"In achieving sustainability, scientific or technological solutions alone will not be successful in the absence of social and political understanding and acceptance," says Anurag Agrawal, CCSF associate director and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "TSF funds contribute to our larger communal enterprise of scholarship -- especially involving students -- that addresses these major issues."

In many cases, TSF funds help beginning projects take shape until they can attract significant grants from federal agencies and other sources. For instance, the Department of Horticulture's Northeast Organic Network (NEON), a consortium of farmers, researchers, extension educators and grassroots nonprofits that shares information on organic agriculture techniques, was formed in 2001 with TSF money and later received a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. NEON meets critical needs in organic farming, one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture and an important market for New York, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in total organic farms (580 certified ones in 2006).

"The TSF gifts provide a real opportunity to start new and innovative research programs from the ground up," says Ian Merwin, the H.M. Cohn Professor of Pomology and International Agriculture in the Department of Horticulture.

Merwin first received an unsolicited gift from TSF in 1999 and has since overseen an annual program of competitive TSF grants for Cornell researchers. In a typical year, Merwin and a review committee that includes CALS graduate students, organic farmers and faculty members award grants to as many as 10 projects that focus on sustainability and organic farming. For 2009 the funded studies include developing the organic grape-growing and winemaking course and the project on tomato leaf disease in high tunnel systems as well as enhancing organic seed corn production in New York.

Faculty members are not the only ones to benefit from the TSF's largesse. The program has expanded to include grants for CALS international graduate students. In 2009 five students will each receive $5,000 to examine sustainability issues in their African and South American homelands. Foreign-born graduate students face limited funding prospects and are ineligible for most federal grants.

"The TSF grants are a valuable opportunity for international students to conduct field studies in developing nations with a true need for research and the potential for tangible impacts on sustainability," adds Merwin.

Ted Boscia is a staff writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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