Penn State

Penn State ag project reaps $471,000 federal grant

The federal government is putting a big chunk of funding into an agriculture project at Penn State.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture unveiled a $6.7 million catalog of grants going to 18 different projects, most at universities around the country. The projects all address how the agro-ecosystem affects food production.

Penn State picked up a $471,324 grant for a project titled “Polycultures: Using Biodiversity to Increase Crop Productivity and Resiliency While Reducing the Agrochemical Footprint for Systems.”

Sound complicated? The shorter, less academic issue on the table might be this: If you mix different crops in a field, could you increase your yield without needing as many chemicals?

John Tooker, associate professor of entomology, is working on the idea with professor of plant science Greg Roth and associate professor of production systems and modeling Armen Kemanian.

“The idea is that monocultures are more susceptible to insect outbreaks and abiotic stress like drought than polycultures would be. This is about the value of having more than one crop species in the field,” Tooker said. “Previous work in my lab and other labs across the world has shown there are benefits to be gained. You get an insurance effect. Over times the productivity of the field is increased.”

Tooker said that the idea actually came to him from local farmers in the Mifflinburg area who were already mixing corn and soy and seeing increased yields.

“It’s encouraging to know that there are some progressive farmers out there that are trying this,” he said.

The innovations are the kind of thing the USDA is hoping to see with the grants.

“Population growth, along with environmental factors, including the growing threat of climate change, are putting increasing demand on the land, water and other resources that produce our food,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “These investments will help us understand how we can farm more effectively and sustainably to feed the growing global population.”

According to the USDA, the projects funded “contribute to the knowledge needed for sustainable production of agro-ecosystems while retaining needed ecosystem services — such as drinking water, pollination and climate regulation.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce