UMD Assistant Professor Awarded $1.1 Million to Mitigate Rising Sea-level and Saltwater Intrusion Threatening Coastal Farm Viability and Bay Health

Flooded corn field

Image Credit: Kate Tully

July 19, 2018 Samantha Watters

Dr. Kate Tully of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture was recently awarded $1.1 million by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for her research on sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Saltwater intrusion reduces soil quality, crop productivity, and increases pollution of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into local waterways around the Chesapeake Bay. Tully’s project combines crop research, wetland ecology, geological and chemical analysis, and economic modeling to not only determine what crop management strategies work in this saltier environment, but identify practical applications that will be the most cost effective and profitable to the farmer while protecting the environment.

“The first European colonies were established in the Chesapeake Bay region, making this home to some America’s first farmlands. Sadly, some of the farms losing land to sea level rise date back to the 1630s,” explains Tully. “In some places, tidal marshes are not just taking over fields, but creating ghost towns. It is another side effect of our changing climate and a threat to our agricultural industry and the viability of farming in this area.”

The research will be conducted through a variety of field trials and greenhouse experiments to determine what crops survive and are productive in the new saltier environment. Trade-off analysis will be conducted to determine the best options for farmers economically, while also protecting the environment and the Bay from added nutrient runoff. Tully's multi-disciplinary team of collaborators includes Dr. Keryn Gedan (George Washington University), Dr. Jarrod Miller (University of Delaware), and Dr. Rebecca Epanchin-Niell (Resources for the Future).  

“Our long-term goal is the development of agroecosystems that are resilient in the face of rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion,” says Tully. “But this project is unique in that it combines many different disciplines and takes research directly into practical application and education for the farming community. Once we determine what the most cost effective strategies are, we will be sharing our results with farmers and extension agents to directly improve environmental and economic outcomes.”

These outreach initiatives will include webinars, development of educational materials, and train-the-trainer sessions to help push the information out as widely as possible. With this work, Tully and her team are putting their boots to the ground to not only conduct the research, but to serve the state and the entire Bay region. “With the College’s goals to improve Bay health, advance agricultural production and farm viability, and promote environmental health and awareness in the face of a changing climate. We are very excited about this project and this opportunity to expand it further,” says Tully.