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$4.7 million USDA grant will help corn farmers reduce greenhouse gas output

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $4.7 million to a Cornell-led effort to help corn growers reduce their carbon footprint and improve net profits by better managing greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon and nitrogen fertilizer use.

David Wolfe, professor of horticulture, is principal investigator for the five-year project, which includes collaborators from Cornell, Columbia University and Colorado State University. The project began in April and focuses on corn farming in New York, Iowa and Colorado.

Using strategic soil sampling and biogeochemical modeling, the researchers plan to develop new tools that will allow farmers to monitor the effect of management decisions on energy efficiency, environmental impact and net profits. The research team will also use regional climate projections and economic data to develop tools for policymakers to analyze economic and environmental implications of a range of policy options.

One key focus is the use of nitrogen fertilizers, Wolfe said. Carbon dioxide is the gas most associated with climate change, but nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas released as nitrogen fertilizer breaks down in the soil, is a major concern in farming operations.

The research will include a look at ways farms might customize their fertilizer use based on factors like soil temperature, rainfall and crop rotations.

"That's low-hanging fruit in terms of what farmers can do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions overall," Wolfe said.

The team also hopes that their Web-based greenhouse gas and carbon monitoring tools will make it easier for farmers to enter the carbon-trading market and other incentive programs. "As for all businesses, there will be growing incentives for documenting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Wolfe said.

Farms could also at some point get credit for sequestering carbon in soils -- but the costs of verifying this are often prohibitively expensive. The research project will be exploring low-cost options, such as using near-infrared spectroscopy for measuring soil carbon directly in the field, a strategy inspired by NASA's techniques for analyzing soils with the Mars rovers on the Red Planet.

On the economic and policy front, co-investigator Antonio Bento, associate professor of applied economics and management, and colleagues are considering incentive programs to encourage greener farming in each of the three regions.

"It's all about keeping farmers in business in a world where energy costs and the climate are uncertain," Wolfe said. "Farmers and policymakers will need new decision tools to maintain food security and farm profits while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

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Blaine Friedlander