The "future of organic farming" is being researched at Lincoln University.
Frieda Eivazi, professor of soil and environmental science, is a project director of research that will assist vegetable farmers that have limited resources in adopting cover crop farming techniques.
Eivazi said she thinks — and hopes — cover crops will become widely used by farmers and her research will help small farmers decide which crop to use. The research project aims to address the most critical concerns of limited resource organic vegetable producers, which include weeds, insects, diseases, use of proper equipment and choice of cover crops.
Cover crops are planted in between growing seasons where the ground would otherwise be bare. Cover crops increase crop yields, slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity. Before planting the actual vegetable crop, the cover crop is terminated, which further enriches the soil by adding organic matter.
Through an organic farming lens, cover crops replace pesticides and fertilizers. The cover crops provide nutrients to the soil and keep weeds and insects away, which saves farmers money. The reduction of chemicals has a positive impact on the environment, as well as people's health.
"The residue of the pesticides that are being used ends up in everything: fruits, vegetables, and eventually it goes to our bodies," Eivazi said.
The project is experimenting with different cover crops to identify what kind would be best in central Missouri. An emphasis of the project is to use common equipment that farmers already have. Instead of recommending small farmers spend money to purchase larger equipment, the researchers are using tools like walk-behind tractors along with flail, rotary and sickle bar mowers to terminate the cover crops.
Eivazi said cover crops have no downside if the right crop and equipment are used.
"I hope more and more farmers adopt this because it has a lot of benefits," Eivazi said.
The final stage of the research project will be an analysis of the economic impact of cover crops. This information will be disseminated to farmers in central Missouri and beyond so they can see the type of recommended cover crop, how to terminate it, and what vegetable to grow later. The researchers' ultimate goal is to assist farmers in increasing their yield and profit.
"Farming is a business," Eivazi said. "They want to have money in their pocket at the end and make a profit."
Currently, the researchers are planting zucchini where the cover crop has been terminated. They are collecting data on the amount of yield produced, as well as studying the physical, chemical and microbiological properties of the soil.
The research project is funded by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative Program, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.