Research Highlight: A Sustainable Approach to Agriculture

Driving from Champaign to Chicago through fields of corn, it’s easy to develop a stereotyped view on agriculture.

Farming’s identity depends on the consumer. Some see an old farmer in a straw hat and clouds of killer pesticides.

There are several images of “farming” that’ve been implanted in consumers’ minds by books, movie depictions, or firsthand experiences.

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    Project lead Dr. Sarah Lovell and her team at Multifuctional Landscape and Design lab with funding from Instititute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment at the University want to change that image for consumers and farmers across the country.

    Their Multifunctional Woody Polyculture project is aimed at studying the feasibility and viability of different polycultural crop systems. In other words, they’re seeing how planting different native species together will affect how well they grow, the disease pressure, their fertilizer needs, the native wildlife’s reaction, etc.

    This is a big project. In all, it encompasses 30 acres of land, split into seven different one-acre polyculture treatments. Treatment One is a traditional corn and soy rotation, Treatment Two is some of the native crops planted in a monoculture and the rest of the treatments are various combinations, densities and spacings of the natives.

    The project is also a long-term endeavor. Most of the native crops that will be studied take years to establish, so data about the economic viability of this approach can’t be taken until about eight to 10 years from now, according to Dr. Lovell. But the project isn’t sitting idle.

    The researchers are gathering baseline data from the corn and soy rotations, they have set up equipment to measure “atmospheric fluxes” including changes in water vapor and carbon dioxide in the air and they are studying early interactions between the young plants.

    Soon, they will be starting the grafting process for their chestnuts and hazelnuts by attaching the desired cultivar to the already growing rootstocks, and by next year they will start seeing yields from the currants.

    But what does this research mean for the average person? These sorts of systems have been put in place on the small scale for years, but there hasn’t been a lot of research done on polyculture as a replacement for traditional large scale monocultures. If farmers that are currently perpetuating this monoculture could see the large-scale economic feasibility of these systems, we just might see more giant farms shifting their thinking. This could lead to a viable, sustainable alternative to the cycle of industrial monoculture that America has been leaning on for years.

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