The Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology and the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) are collaborating with multiple universities, partners, farmers, and stakeholders from throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed region in a 5-year sustainable agriculture systems study, led by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, and funded by a prestigious $9 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA).
This comprehensive, multi-institutional project entitled “Thriving Agricultural Systems in Urbanized Landscapes,” and headed by principal investigator David Abler of Penn State, is an interdisciplinary framework developed to conduct practical research into sustainable agriculture practices that will mitigate environmental degradation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed while providing economic feasibility to farmers and farming communities for the long-term. The Hughes Center is charged with performing outreach aspects of this project.
Considering the current pandemic and associated food shortages, research in food systems to determine the options available to city planners is a necessity. Population growth, as well as sprawl, affects how people access food, and the availability of nutritious food and clean water. The unpredictability of other factors such as climate change and infectious diseases like the COVID-19 crisis, can further exacerbate issues of supply and demand.
“The goal we are envisioning is to predict what agriculture will look like in a rapidly urbanizing Chesapeake Bay watershed in 25 years; can we sustain the agriculture that already exists, and how we can advance our systems to go beyond where agriculture is today?” said Gurpal Toor, professor and extension specialist with the Department of Environmental Science and technology in AGNR, who is the grant team’s expert on nutrient management and water quality.
Toor, who is currently undergoing two other soil health-related studies funded by the Hughes Center, will be working with a diverse team including researchers from Penn State, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, The Ohio State University, Nancy Nunn with the Hughes Center, as well as Professor Ray Weil, preeminent soil scientist with AGNR.
Recognizing that consumers within these urban communities value the local foods, open space, wildlife habitats, and agritourism associated with urban farm operations, the team of almost 20 scientists will create feasibility studies to maintain those systems in the face of intensifying competition for land, population sprawl, and water pollution.
Toor’s part in this ambitious, multi-faceted project is to determine mass balances of nutrient distribution to farm fields -- the inputs and outputs of nitrogen and phosphorus -- essential nutrients needed to grow more fruitful yields of crops, but which can be detrimental to the Bay environment when introduced in excess.
Traversing across Maryland, Toor will assess mass balances of nutrients in farm fields for different regions to determine how much runoff occurs. “If we can do that, maybe there are inefficiencies in the production systems, where nutrients runoff because they aren’t applied at the right time the plant needs them, or some other scenario,” Toor said. “So the idea is to do a quantifiable study of mass balances, finding where they’re inefficient and looking at the types of best management practices that could be implemented in those regions to reduce nutrient losses to receiving waters in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.”
Ray Weil, a world-renowned soil scientist with AGNR, will lead a separate effort under the umbrella of the grant developing case studies on innovative farms in and around urbanized areas and looking at how management practices can protect soil and groundwater health.
“I’ve been working with a number of small, highly diverse, commercial farms that are doing some innovative things,” said Weil. “This is a forward-looking project so we will examine the progressive things those farmers are doing, like composting leaves collected by municipalities and community-supported agriculture, to determine how successful those practices are, how those farms interact with the urban environment, and what are the environmental and soil health impacts.”
Weil’s project will also involve a second component using test plots at the Central Maryland Agricultural Research and Education Center. Also focusing on progressive farming techniques and soil health, the experimental plots will look at the impact of advanced cover cropping techniques and how they affect nutrient flows and groundwater quality.
“This is important because most of our studies on cover cropping are short term,” said Weil. “We look and compare different cover crops, or no cover crop, and ask how this affects yields the following year. But this project will look at some of the benefits that carry over four or five years -- organic matter, improving the soil -- there’s very little data on the long term effects of cover cropping.”
The data derived from the field researchers like Weil and Toor will be compiled by modelers who will extrapolate that information to be effective throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed region. Armed with these models and visualizations of potential future scenarios, the team will work with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the future of farming, urban agricultural systems, environmental and economic impacts, to make recommendations regarding how to move forward with policies that are acceptable and economically beneficial to communities.
This rigorous project also involves economists, and a human component that will be examined to better understand people’s perceptions, said Toor. “There is a social dimension that comes into play into everything that we do to help ensure that the things we offer through research will be accepted by the larger community,” he said. “We do all of this research, but when it comes to the cost to implement...it’s useful information but can it be practically implemented? No one is willing or should have to take a financial loss.”
While still in the beginning phases of the project, the end goal is to communicate that message to other farmers, says Toor. “We can’t perform nutrient mass balance studies for every single field, but we will find similarities between environmental regions and provide best management practices that will be profitable by reducing unnecessary overfertilization,” Toor said. “When we offer these best management practices to farmers, we’re telling them that not only are you helping the health of the Bay, but it’s also about sustaining agriculture and agricultural communities.”