Lincoln University research plot to showcase productive alley cropping system

Sougata Bardhan
Sougata Bardhan

A Lincoln University research plot will showcase a highly productive alley cropping system with the goal of aiding small Missouri farmers.

Agroforestry researcher Sougata Bardhan will plant rows of high-yielding Chinese chestnut trees in a demonstration plot at George Washington Carver Farm, and plant hazelnut, currants, gooseberry, roselle and other berry crops in the spaces in between. Honeybee hives will also be integrated into the plot.

The university will use the demonstration plot to display next-generation conservation efforts to Missouri farmers and to develop market-based solutions to resource challenges, according to a news release. The alley cropping method improves soil health and quality, and water quality while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"A significant portion of farms are operated by small, minority and/or resource-limited farmers, characterized by having a very low household income," Bardhan said. "A well-designed alley cropping system can provide high-value yields of specialty crops compared to their land footprint, providing small farmers with a diverse, economically viable production alternative that also provides crucial ecosystem services for their farm and community."

Bardhan said alley cropping is a multi-benefit alternative to conventional agriculture practices because farmers can produce a diverse array of crops, which tends to provide more ecological and financial resiliency. The addition of honeybee hives, for example, offers habitat for a native pollinator to protect biodiversity while also maximizing financial returns with honey sales.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting the demonstration plot with a $399,606 Conservation Innovation Grant, which are awarded to promote the development of new tools, technologies and strategies for conserving agricultural working lands.

Products resulting from the alley cropping system can be marketed as "climate-smart" produce and attract shoppers concerned about climate change or eating local, Bardhan said.

He said he expects the alley crops and honeybee hives to start producing economic returns within two or three years and the chestnut trees to start producing returns in seven to 10 years. As growth on the demonstration plot progresses, Bardhan will share his research with small farmers throughout the state.

Bardhan's research is the third major agroforestry project at Lincoln and the historically Black university has a couple more in the works. Agroforestry is getting more national attention as a way to combat or ease climate change and extreme weather events, he added.

"With the success of these projects, Lincoln University will be at the epicenter of this focus," Bardhan said.