• Can biochar help adapt agriculture to a hotter, dryer climate?

    By Shelby Hoglund, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow Vineyard in Sonoita, AZ with biochar application near rows of vines, March 2019. Let’s talk about desert agriculture. Warning: you may feel thirsty. Agriculture in the arid Southwestern United States is productive year-round, with conditions that permit crops to grow the entire year. But with a predicted hotter, dryer climate looming in the near future, desert agriculture faces challenges. My research addresses climate change adaptation through soil health. A key component of healthy soil is its organic matter. Organic matter—the part of the soil made up of decomposing plant and animal residue—is particularly important in arid environments because it acts like a sponge to hold water. The water content in soil affects microbial activity, which plays a key role in soil nutrient cycling. Soil microorganisms unlock nutrients for plants to absorb, increasing productivity. Soils with a very low amount of organic matter will retain little water because the “sponge” is missing. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service calculated that increasing soil organic matter by just 1% can increase the amount of water that soil can retain by 25,000 gallons per acre! Okay, I’m sold! Where can I get this soil organic matter? Well, animal manures and compost are high in organic matter and make an excellent soil amendment. However, those materials may only last a few years in soils because microorganisms enjoy feasting on them, and the extreme desert climate either blows them away in the wind or cooks them with heat and UV radiation. But we have an alternative. There is a material made from organic waste that will stay in the soil for much longer—decades to centuries instead of a few years—while also benefiting water-holding capacity, organic matter content, and nutrient retention. This material is biochar. Biochar is created by recycling organic waste through a process that heats up the material to temperatures as high as 1,000 °C. The intense heat occurs in a chamber without oxygen, which means that about half the carbon (a key ingredient in organic matter) becomes a stable material rather than turning into carbon dioxide; the carbon remains carbon, while also producing liquid hydrocarbon byproducts that can be used as fuel. But how much biochar do farmers need to apply in order for their soil to retain more water? How much is too much? What other benefits or detriments exist? I am studying these effects and will share the results with farmers. I have several field sites where I am quantifying the effects of adding biochar in different amounts to arid agricultural soils in southern Arizona to understand changes in variables important for crop growth such as soil moisture levels, soil microbial activity, and pH. One field site is at a grape vineyard in Sonoita, Arizona, where the focus is to increase plant-available nutrients by calling on agriculture’s biggest team of volunteers: soil microorganisms. How do we get them to come out and help? We can provide a “sponge” that holds water for them for the dry periods between irrigation. We hypothesize that adding biochar to the soil will help the soil retain irrigation water for longer. At another field site, I am growing wheat in a field with plots that contain either co-composted biochar or a blend of mature compost with biochar. Why wheat? Wheat is commonly grown in southern Arizona following alfalfa and prior to cotton. Many biochar studies observe the boost that biochar can provide to crop yield. This field study is a bit different and somewhat harsher to the plants: I plan to irrigate the field so that plots have a 50% irrigation deficit, 25% irrigation deficit, or no deficit (100% of the normal irrigation). Over time, I will compare the microbial activity in the soil, the soil moisture content, and the wheat plant response between the different plots. This work can help us determine how biochar can maintain crop yield while reducing farmers need to irrigate. My research goals are becoming a reality thanks to the support of my advisor, Dr. Joseph Blankinship, my industry sponsor, Arizona Vignerons Alliance, and the FFAR Fellows program.


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  • Food for the Future: How Artificial Intelligence Can Improve Drought Resistance

    By Kevin Xie, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow The surface of a corn leaf. The stomata cells are light green and sink deeper into the leaf surface. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2); plants do the opposite. But how, exactly, do plants “breathe”? My interest in plants traces way back to when I was in grade school. I was given some ugly seeds to sow in pots on the balcony of my home and was amazed when spectacular flowers grew over the following months. Since then, I have enjoyed growing plants as a hobby and later further redirected my research interest into crops to help breeding for the future warmer and drier environment. Understanding how plants “breathe” is a key step in knowing how efficient they can produce. The “mouths” of plants are called stomata. These cells on leaf surfaces form pores that allow CO2 to enter the inner leaf space where photosynthesis occurs. However, it’s not a situation of “the more mouths, the better”. A critical trade-off exists. As CO2 is flowing into the leaf, water vapor inevitably flows out. The loss of water vapor from leaves accounts for more than 95 percent of water uptake by plants. If the water supply runs out, the stomata must close to prevent the plant from drying out. This prevents photosynthesis from making sugars that fuel the plant, which can lead to crop failure. Part of my research as a graduate student at the University of Illinois and as a 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow, is to decrease stomata conductance through plant breeding to create crops that lose less water and are more drought-tolerant. My work is focused on this question: Can we find a good balance point where plants capture the most CO2 possible while using the least possible amount of water? Farmers are most eager to know the answers to this question so that they could save investment in irrigation and have more stable harvest when a dry year occurs. To answer this question, we as researchers must accurately measure the number and size of stomatal pores. For a long time, measuring these traits was complicated, tedious and time-consuming. It involved painting the leaf with nail polish and peeling off an imprint of the cells in the nail polish, followed by endless manual counting and measuring under the microscope. This strategy was inefficient and made it complicated for researchers to accurately collect data. This is where machine learning can offer a more efficient solution. In my research, I labeled the stomata and fed the coordinates into the computer along with this image. The computer extracted the features of the images, enabling the computer to recognize what stomata features look like. This process was repeated and improved over various cycles. After letting the program run for about one day, I finally had a mathematical model that could be used to identify and count stomata in new images. The summary of the outputs gave me the location coordinates of each stomatal pore and its size. With that in hand, my team was able to scale-up and easily run the model on thousands of images. The real-world implications for this new process are profound and will significantly impact food and agriculture research. For example, I am now using this tool to identify regions of DNA in the corn genome where genetics drives variation in the number of stomata and water use efficiency in different varieties of the crop. This is a necessary step towards downstream gene function evaluation and integration to existing elite germplasms, allowing them to gain better performance in drought-tolerance and water use efficiency. The backbone of the algorithm is Mask R-CNN, which is one of the latest computer science programs designed for object detection. This well-annotated framework allowed me, a crop sciences graduate student with no background in coding, to implement the algorithm, build my own model and answer my scientific questions. For anyone who is interested in similar topics (do you want to track down your pet dog from a home camera?), learn some basic Python and Linux and give it a try yourself! None of this would have happened without the amazing support from both FFAR and Bayer. Being a part of the first cohort of FFAR Fellows has been an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience.


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  • Milkweeds: Medicine for Monarchs?

    By Annie Krueger, 2018-2021 FFAR Fellow Imagine a world where farmers could no longer use most insecticides, had limited access to herbicides and that these setbacks were caused by a…


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  • The Value of Mentorship

    By Sally Rockey, FFAR Executive Director Mentorships matter! Having had a long career in science, I can reflect fondly on those individuals who made…


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  • Farmers and Researchers: Growing Food for Life

    By FFAR Staff National Agriculture Day is a great opportunity to thank America’s farmers. It’s amazing to walk into any grocery…


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  • OpTIS: Where Technology Drives Conservation Results

    By Pipa Elias, Soil Health Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy and LaKisha Odom, Scientific Program Manager, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research The global population is estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, placing unprecedented pressure on American farmers to grow even more of the crops that clothe, fuel and feed the world. One way to help alleviate this pressure is to significantly improve soil health on cropland. By adopting practices like planting winter cover crops and reducing—or better yet eliminating—tillage practices, farmers can significantly improve productivity of their fields, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and increase carbon storage. In fact, agricultural soils are among the planet's largest reservoirs (or sinks) of carbon. Improving soil on American croplands has the potential to mitigate 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year. But how do we know if the adoption rate of these soil health practices, specifically cover crops and conservation tillage, is increasing? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand how many acres are currently managed with these practices (baseline data), and we need the ability to track progress over time. COVER CROPS Multiple cover crop and pasture plant species are improving soil health and overall production capacity. © Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS   Technology is Key New Hampshire-based Applied GeoSolutions(AGS) has developed the Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS), a GIS tool that uses data from several earth-observing satellites to map and monitor cover crop development and detect plant residue left on cropland to determine the tillage activities. AGS and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) conducted a successful pilot project to test the capability of OpTIS to map tillage practices and cover crops from 2006 to 2015 in Indiana. Multiple investors recognize how this technology will advance soil health and a deliver numerous environmental benefits. In fact, Bayer Crop Science, DuPont Pioneer, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto, Mosaic, J.R. Simplot Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy have matched a $500,000 grant from FFAR to support expanding the application of the OpTIS technology. This FFAR grant, in addition to support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is making it possible for AGS, CTIC, the Conservancy and other partners to apply the OpTIS technology across the Midwest and ultimately throughout the country. Not only are the partners mapping soil health practice trends, but they are using a computer simulation model to determine the environmental impacts of cover crops and reduced tillage practices. The DeNitrification-DeComposition Model (DNDC) measures benefits such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon, and water-holding capacity. It is important to note that OpTIS calculations are made using publicly available data, and reported at watershed scales to ensure the privacy of individual growers is fully protected. COVER CROP RESIDUES Soybeans emerge through a mat of diverse cover crop plant residues, reducing evaporation, lowering soil temperatures and protecting soil from erosion. © Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS   The better we—goverments, academia, conservation organizations and businesses—understand the trends in adoption rates of these practices, the better we can focus resources and tools that will help farmers secure their future while benefiting communities and nature. For instance, OpTIS can help Soil and water conservation districts establish priorities and to evaluate progress in achieving county or statewide goals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments track progress towards and better focus efforts to meet the ambitious goals of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to reduce harmful nutrient (primarily nitrogen and phosphorous) loading in the Mississippi River basin. Stakeholders throughout the agri-food system supply chain better understand market trends in the adoption of cover crops and specific tillage systems that impact environmental sustainability, such as greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration. Conservation organizations target efforts to improve soil health and water quality. Regional and national agricultural offices evaluate and compare the effectiveness of conservation programs across large regions. These groups can use this information to identify areas with low rates of conservation technology adoption and target these areas for future support. Academic researchers use spatial information on conservation practices for modeling water quality and the carbon cycle. Knowledge is power, and OpTIS will help to empower a wide range of stakeholders with vital data to help improve farmers’ productivity, safeguard our water and lands and ensure a sustainable future. Resources OpTIS Fact Sheet (1.66 MB PDF) See how remote sensing data can map conservation agriculture practices and help farmers be more efficient and effective. Download PDF


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  • The Buzz About Pollinators

    Happy National Pollinator Week! This week, we honor the many insects and animals that allow agriculture to flourish. A pollinator is any animal that transfers pollen within a single plant or from one plant to another of the same species, aiding in the reproduction process. There are over 200,000 species that serve as pollinators, including bees, butterflies, birds and bats. Even lemurs in Madagascar are pollinators! Healthy pollinator species are directly correlated to a thriving ecosystem. In fact, nearly 75% of all crops require pollination for producing the food we eat and it is estimated that approximately 1/3 of all food and beverage products come from pollinated plants. Farmers rely on pollinator species for higher quality crops and increased yield. Yet pollinators have been declining since at least the mid-20th century. For managed honey bees, their population of 5 million in the 1940s has declined to 2.89 million today – that’s nearly half our bees disappearing! The Monarch butterfly population has declined by 95% just in the past two decades. The deterioration of these various species may be due to factors like increased use of herbicides and pesticides, urbanization, and the spread of invasive species. But it’s not just about numbers. Poor pollinator health leads to lower pollination efficiency, susceptibility to disease, and decreased benefits to crops. We all have something to lose when our pollinators aren't thriving. At FFAR, we believe research and innovation will promote the growth of pollinator populations back to health. In 2017, FFAR awarded more than $7 million to 16 teams to support science and technology to support health and maintenance of various pollinator populations. These projects are funded by more than 50 universities, companies, and organizations committed to improving pollinator health for a total investment of $14 million in pollinator health. By working together, we can restore the health of our pollinators and ensure a flourishing future for agriculture. About the Author Dr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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  • Happy National Ag Week

    Happy National Ag Week! Our closest relationship to Earth is through agriculture – it serves as the foundation on which our country and all of civilization has flourished. This week, we celebrate the farmers, ranchers, and producers who work tirelessly to put food on our tables. Thank you for everything you do to cultivate the abundance provided by American agriculture. But we’re faced with a monumental challenge in the coming years. More food will be consumed in the next 50 years than in the last 7,000 years. We will need to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 and we must do this with the same about or diminishing land while protecting our national resources. Science is accelerating at breakneck speed. Our ability to couple new tech with what we rapidly discover about living things means that the agricultural enterprise is benefiting so rapidly from research that it is truly breathtaking. I truly believe there is no better time to be engaged in agricultural science and research. America’s support of food and agriculture research has helped us become the world’s leader in agriculture production, but public investment in ag science is declining. Now, more than ever, we need food and agriculture research to help farmers put food on our tables. At FFAR, we believe that public-private partnerships will be essential to spur the innovation we need to feed the world. We must continue to bring together the best and brightest scientists to address challenges in food and agriculture – plus provide them the support they need to make the discoveries that will accelerate innovation. Let’s work together to support agriculture research that spurs innovation and leads us to a future where we all have access to healthy, nourishing food produced by thriving American farms. About the Author Dr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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  • Convening Stakeholders to Discuss Antimicrobial Stewardship Research

    By Tim Kurt, D.V.M., Ph.D., FFAR Scientific Program Director One Health Day was November 3, 2017, and FFAR kicked off the celebration a day early by partnering with the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) at the Antibiotic Stewardship Symposium in Herndon, VA. For three days, veterinarians, researchers, public health experts, livestock producers, and representatives from the animal health industry and Federal and state agencies came together to discuss antibiotic stewardship and its role in the economic and social sustainability of livestock production. FFAR staff attended the symposium to explore research gaps in antibiotic stewardship and farm management practices, and to support collaborative efforts to address these issues. At the conclusion of the symposium, on November 2, FFAR hosted a workshop that focused on identifying area for collaborative research towards enhancing antimicrobial stewardship in livestock production. FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey started the workshop with an introduction to FFAR, followed by Dr. H. Morgan Scott, a professor at Texas A&M, who presented a talk titled “Mitigating the Spread of Residues and Antimicrobial Resistance Genes in the Environment.” Dr. Scott described work to elucidate the spread of Salmonella enterica serovar Heidelberg in a closed community. His results have informed surveillance efforts and the ability to predict infectious disease outbreaks. Dr. Peter Davies, a professor at the University of Minnesota, next presented a talk on microbial selection pressures and food safety. Dr. Davies explored the complexity of antimicrobial resistance - a concept that involves living systems influenced by abiotic factors. He emphasized environmental components of antimicrobial resistance and food safety, which are often overlooked, and suggested that we need to better define selection pressures and quantification of antibiotic use to truly understand the impacts of antibiotic use and reduction. Both Drs. Morgan and Davies discussed challenges to antibiotic stewardship, which provided a segue into small-group discussions of research needs in this area. It was exciting to see that thought-leaders from diverse backgrounds share a common goal of improved antibiotic stewardship. The discussions were very productive and resulted in many recommendations for research that could be supported by FFAR. We look forward to continuing this conversation with potential partners from industry, academic, government and non-governmental organizations as we develop an initiative to support antimicrobial stewardship research. Special thanks to Derecka Alexander for contributing to this post. Learn More FFAR Workshop at the NIAA Antibiotic Symposium: Identifying Priorities and Opportunities for Multi-Stakeholder Research   Related Work FFAR Protein Challenge About the Author Dr. Tim Kurt, D.V.M., Ph.D., joined the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in October 2016 as a Scientific Program Director. Dr. Kurt manages the Protein Challenge, a research portfolio in support of FFAR efforts to enhance and improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins for a growing global population. He also oversees the Rapid Outcomes from Agricultural Research (ROAR) program, which awards grants for research to prevent and/or mitigate agricultural pest or pathogen outbreaks. Dr.  Kurt received his D.V.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Colorado State University.


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  • The Time is RIPE for Agricultural Innovation

    By Sally Rockey, FFAR Executive Director Greetings from Champaign, Illinois! By now you’ve heard about the groundbreaking RIPE project and its quest to improve photosynthetic efficiency in plants. I had the pleasure of joining co-funders from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and U.K. Department of International Development along with agricultural leaders and USDA representatives to see firsthand where the innovation happens during the RIPE Reinvestment event at the University of Illinois. From left to right: FFAR Board Member Pam Johnson, RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort, FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey, and University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones.   RIPE, or Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, researchers have already redesigned photosynthesis to increase test crop yields by 20 percent. Now, with an additional $45 million investment, the team of University and USDA scientists is working to provide those same yield increases to soybeans, cassava, and cowpeas. Imagine what this could mean in the fight against world hunger. Farmers across the world could produce more food simply by harnessing the power of the sun. There is endless potential in this project to improve human health and increase economic opportunities for farmers.   Johannes Kromdijk, Postdoctoral Researcher for RIPE, explained the rigorous process of studying the photosynthetic process of plants in his lab in the Carl. R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.   The RIPE team brings together experts from around the world to look at photosynthesis – the process that makes a plant a plant! It’s basic for plant survival, yet it can be very inefficient. By studying plant genetics, RIPE will lead the way in creating crops that will feed the world. Tackling big problems with big science is what FFAR is all about. It was amazing to see how many labs and researchers are involved in this project, not only at University of Illinois but also at partner institutions across the U.S. and overseas – it really is a team effort! I’m excited to see what discoveries they make and how it will change the world. I’m proud to support RIPE researchers and their work toward ending hunger with innovative science.     About the Author Dr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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