Minnesota is one of the northernmost states in the USA, and a hotbed for organic agriculture research, emphasizing production in cold climates and a short growing season.

The University of Minnesota (UMN) is one of the most recognized public agriculture universities in the USA, with over 40,000 students learning together in a largely urban setting. The UMN Organic Program is a global leader in organic research, education, and community engagement. Recent research efforts take advantage of our northern location to develop new knowledge that ultimately helps farmers successfully grow organic crops in our challenging (and changing) climate.

Organic agriculture research at UMN is multidisciplinary, with projects ranging from soil science, to plant pathology, agronomy, animal science and entomology. In 2014 two new faculty members were hired in Horticultural Science to meet the growing demand for organic agriculture expertise in our region. Dr. Mary Rogers’ research program focuses on ecological strategies to improve production of vegetables and fruit, and Dr. Julie Grossman’s program works to improve soil fertility on organic farms via improved understanding of plant-soil-microbe interactions.

 

High tunnels are relatively inexpensive, greenhouse-like structures that allow growers to extend the season, control the environment, and increase crop yield and quality. Currently, both Rogers’ and Grossman’s programs have active projects to better understand the role of high tunnels in organic production in northern climates. Spotted wing drosophila is a recent invasive pest that causes great damage to fruit and is especially worrisome to organic producers since few control options are available. Recent results from the Roger’s lab show that high tunnels may be modified with fine mesh netting, rather than the standard plastic, to exclude these invasive pests. This option may be particularly promising to protect high value berry crops in our region. High-tunnel production may be characterized by increased productivity, but due to intense cultivation strategies, they also pose many challenges for sustainability, soil health, and environmental quality. Recent research efforts in the Grossman lab have worked with organic growers to identify and trial legume cover crops that fit within existing high tunnel vegetable rotations. Thanks to a new 1.5 million USDA grant, this work has now expanded to include a collaboration between soil scientists, economists and horticulturalists across the U.S. This new project will evaluate the effect of legume cover crops on soil microbial and nutrient cycling properties across a north-south U.S. transect from Minnesota to Kentucky, where high tunnels are prevalent. Results of this work will help high tunnel producers across the U.S. improve soil health while maintaining productivity and their bottom-line.

 

The University of Minnesota Organic Program has additional research efforts underway in diverse departments. Examples of these efforts include those in Plant Pathology to understand the effect of black rot on cabbage and verticillium wilt, in Soil Science to investigate how the manure rule - requiring waiting periods prior to crop harvest - affects soil pathogens, in Horticulture to identify summer cover crop options to improve soil quality in organic vegetable rotations, and in Agronomy develop new lucrative perennial grain rotations to ease the strain on farmers during the transition period. The UMN also continues to be a leader in organic milk production research, with researcher Dr. Bradley Heins at the helm. This program is improving organic dairy farms to provide nutritionally enhanced milk for consumers and using pastured chickens to control flies on organic dairy cattle.

 

Building on our research program, our 6 acre (2.5 ha) Cornercopia Student Organic Farm is a critical component of the Organic Program, providing a space for knowledge sharing and student experiential learning opportunities. We continue to offer a full-semester course in organic production, as well as a spring and summer apprenticeship program for those interested in an advanced leadership opportunity. New in 2018, the UMN Organic Program has launched an expansion plan for Cornercopia called Northgate Commons. Northgate will be a physical gathering space for students, including a venue for outdoor classes and workshops, a kitchen garden, and an area to showcase novel edible plants and innovative growing techniques. The site will be a community space for students and adult learners within the University and beyond to learn about sustainable agriculture and food production through hands-on and experiential learning.

 

orgd 1 jessica                       

Organic dairy research focuses on herd quality and milk improvement

 

high tunnels jessica 

High tunnels are a growing part of the Minnesota landscape, but struggle with soil fertility issues

 

summer cover crops jessica 

Summer cover crops help occupy empty niches of horticultural crop rotations and can improve soil nutrient cycling properties 


Author:

Julie Grossman, Associate Professor Soil
Agroecology and Organic Agriculture, University of Minnesota

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https://grossmanlab.cfans.umn.edu/ and https://www.organicag.umn.edu/