Maryland Field Sites Tour Connects Team Members From Related Projects

Maryland Field Sites Tour Connects Team Members From Related Projects

Here is a video by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology that features Thriving Ag Project Co-PI, Dr. Gurpal Toor. The video is about a project completed by University of Maryland Scientists Dr. Gurpal Toor and Dr. Yun-Ya Yang to find the optimal practices to keep nutrients in crop root zones and out of local waterways. This project was funded by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology.

The field site shown in the video was also the last stop on an edge-of-field site tour in Maryland that took place in October of 2021. A couple of Thriving Ag Project team members and members of the Stakeholder Advisory Board were able to join the tour with Dr. Toor. This included:

  • Dr. Dave Abler, Professor of Agricultural Economics, Penn State, and Project Director

  • Chris Brosch, Nutrient Management Program Administrator for Delaware Dept of Ag

  • Maggie Frederick, Project Manager, Penn State

  • Amy Jacobs, Agriculture Program Director, MDDC Chapter The Nature Conservancy

  • Nancy Nunn, Assistant Director, Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology Inc.


Blockchain Technology, PA Produce, and the Digital Economy

Blockchain Technology, PA Produce, and the Digital Economy

An emerging tool could give PA wholesale growers a competitive advantage and reduce barriers to financial success.

It's 2021, almost 2022, and the rate of technological innovation in our economy and society continues apace. What emerging tools could give Pennsylvania wholesale growers a competitive advantage and reduce barriers to financial success? Technology has transformed many aspects of agriculture and the economy, yet many of the business and record-keeping systems used by growers lag behind the digital revolution. A relatively new technology called 'blockchain' has potential applications for farms and food supply chains.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a foundational technology on which new economic and legal systems can be built. It first appeared with the launch of a digital currency called 'Bitcoin' about ten years ago. In a nutshell, blockchain is a tool that can record transactions and track information between businesses and assets across supply chains. Once created, transactions become part of a permanent record and cannot be manipulated by individual users.

One way to think of blockchain in the year 2021 is to compare it to the internet of the early 1990s. The use of the 'World Wide Web' was very limited at that time, relative to the many sophisticated uses of today. Individual organizations and small networks of people experimented with new tools like 'Electronic Mail' and informational websites built upon the early version of the 'Internet.' Similarly, uses for blockchain like the digital currency mentioned above, are being created now. Many more applications of blockchain technology will be developed in the coming years.

Why is blockchain worth thinking about now?

Why was the internet worth learning about in the early 1990's? New foundational technologies like the internet in the 1990's – and, potentially, like blockchain now – have the ability to redefine how we relate to each other, conduct business, and generate financial success. Early examples of blockchain use in the food supply chain include giving consumers access to information about product origins and growing practices; automating contracts and payment processes; improving product and ingredient traceability; and enabling efficient cooperation and aggregation among producers.

Consumers want more information. Grocery shoppers want to 'know their farmer.' Many surveys show that knowing how and where food is produced impacts consumer purchasing decisions. Blockchain technology enables some producers to differentiate their brand and deepen engagement with consumers. For example, IBM is developing a global network of olive oil suppliers and using blockchain to trace the supply chain of their products around the world.

Blockchain may help producers save time and money. Automatic or 'smart' contracts built upon blockchain technology could send payment to a producer as soon as delivery is confirmed, for example. GPS tracking, attached to loads of product or individual SKUs, could automatically log location updates and trigger additional contractual terms or provide clear chain-of-custody information for traceability.

Retailers might one day require participation in their blockchain systems. Traceability is a rising trend in wholesale produce supply chains. Traceability systems track product from its point of origin to the final consumer purchase, usually with a focus on food safety and tracking potential outbreaks of foodborne illness. Blockchain technology could be used here to track the quality, safety, and flow of products. TraceHarvest Network uses blockchain technology to improve identification and remediation during food safety recalls and certify products' origin and certification claims. Walmart is exploring blockchain applications in their cold chain, to trace E. coli outbreaks in lettuce for instance, to track down potentially contaminated product in a faster, more targeted, verifiable way.

Using blockchain, small producers could also better compete with large-scale or international producers through cooperation and aggregation. New systems for working together that include automatic contracts and improved traceability could satisfy the strict requirements of major market outlets and open new sales opportunities for grower networks.

PA producers planning for their business's future will do well to keep blockchain technology on their radar. Long-term success requires learning new tools and techniques as they benefit your business and justify the costs of adoption. Blockchain will likely shape the digital economy of the future and impact PA producers' financial success.

Wholesale Farms and Blockchain Technology Survey

Read more here on how the research team is studying ways that blockchain technology may improve wholesale farm businesses and give Pennsylvania growers a competitive advantage.

Authors: Jay Eury and Becky Clawson, Extension Educators, Penn State


Thriving Ag Team Members Read and Wainger Publish in PeerJ

Thriving Ag Team Members Read and Wainger Publish in PeerJ

Team members Dan Read and Lisa Wainger recently published a paper in Peer J titled "Exploring private land conservation non-adopters’ attendance at outreach events in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, USA". You can read the article here.

The article relates to their Thriving Ag project work on effectively promoting the adoption of agricultural conservation practices. Read more about their work here.


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Understanding the Effects of Cover Crops and Nutrient Management on Microbial Carbon Use Efficiency and Nitrogen Mineralization

Understanding the Effects of Cover Crops and Nutrient Management on Microbial Carbon Use Efficiency and Nitrogen Mineralization

The capacity to predict plant-available nitrogen (N) accurately from cover crops and provide better estimations of N requirements could avoid yield loss from under application of N fertilizer and reduce environmental contamination due to overapplication. In addition, cover cropping is an important soil management practice to increase soil organic matter (SOM) and soil health. Predicting the release of plant-available N from cover crops and soil organic matter requires an understanding of all the factors that affect the microbial processes of decomposition and N mineralization, however. One key factor is the microbial carbon use efficiency (CUE), a critical property of the soil ecosystem that affects carbon (C) retention and N-mineralization. Therefore, CUE is an important component in understanding and unraveling questions about C and N cycles in agricultural systems.

CUE is the proportion of decomposed C used by microorganisms (as a food source) to increase their microbial biomass, in contrast to the C emitted during respiration or enzyme production. Higher values of microbial CUE are reflected when plant residue inputs are more effectively stabilized into the microbial biomass and ultimately soil organic matter. Is this good? Yes. Yet, how is this related to N availability? The efficient utilization of C to grow their microbial biomass demands greater microbial N assimilation because microbial biomass is generally made up from one part of N for every 10 parts of C. Hence, a higher CUE means less N from decomposing residues will be available to mineralize into ammonium and be available for plants to use. This makes microbial CUE a fundamental factor regulating N-mineralization rates. However, substantial literature shows that CUE varies according to the type of decomposing substrate (e.g., cover crop C: N ratio), environmental factors, soil inorganic N availability, and microbial community composition.

A new decision-support tool for predicting N-mineralization and adjusting N-fertilizer recommendations for corn that is being developed by the lab groups of Charlie White and Jason Kaye as part of the Thriving Agriculture project includes the effect of CUE on N-cycling. Values of CUE calculated by this tool are currently estimated according to soil texture. Development and improvement of the decision-support tool include the participation of farmer stakeholders, where they evaluate and give feedback on the tool using data from their farms to calculate N-fertilizer recommendations. To improve the decision support tool, we are conducting research to better understand and predict how the CUE is affected by different on-farm practices (e.g., cover cropping, N fertilizer additions) and inherent soil properties (soil texture variation). This work will allow farmers to estimate N-mineralization better and adjust N fertilizer applications to meet cash crop demands more closely, which is an important step towards increase nitrogen use efficiency in agricultural systems, one of the key goals of the Thriving Agriculture project.

Currently, two on-farm experiments and three experiments on the research farm are established. Baileigh Rosado, Rachel Fedorko, Zack Sanders, Raziel Ordonez, Brosi Bradley, Madeline Colen Sorber, Ezra Raupach-Learn, Dana Sanchez from Penn State University, Leidy Fernandez from the University of Puerto Rico, and Elizabeth Willard, Austin Mickles, and Julie Cherneskie from Ursinus College contributed to experiment establishment and data collection. Wade Esbenshade and Carl Schmidt host on-farm trials. The preliminary results will be shared during this fall. If you feel interested in receiving more information about this research, write to Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio (zxr81@psu.edu), or to Charlie White (cmw29@psu.edu).


Thriving Ag Project Quarterly Updates (July 2021)

Thriving Ag Project Quarterly Updates (July 2021)

Find out what the Thriving Ag project team has been up to this past quarter in the July 2021 Quarterly Report.

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Thriving Ag Project Researchers Study How Cover Crop Management Might Affect Slug Activity

Thriving Ag Project Researchers Study How Cover Crop Management Might Affect Slug Activity

During the early spring, while collecting runoff and leaching water samples, Ray Weil noticed that one of their team's field sites in Maryland that is fine-textured and has poor drainage had a large slug infestation. Since slugs like to hide out under undisturbed crop residue, they are a major concern for farmers wishing to adopt conservation practices. Farmers have few effective controls to limit slug damage to young seedlings which can be so severe that the crop needs to be re-planted. Therefore, Ray Weil and Qianyao Si decided to take advantage of the slug infestation to study how cover crop management might affect slug activity. They, and a team of undergraduate students, studied the slug infestation for several weeks just before and after soybean and corn planting by counting the slugs under roofing shingles placed in plots as slug refuges and by rating the crop seedlings for damage. They collected data on soil moisture and temperature as well, since cool, wet condition might favor slug activity but hamper crop emergence and seedling growth.

Their preliminary slug study findings include:

  • Prior to crop emergence, slug counts were higher in soybean residue than in corn residue.

  • The soil under corn residue was wetter and cooler than soil under soybean residue.

  • Prior to crop emergence, cover crop did not affect slug numbers.

  • Soybean damage scores averaged across rye and 3-species mix cover crops were lower in the late cover crop kill (planted green) plots than in the early and mid-kill plots.

  • By the time trifoliate leaves developed, soybean stand counts were slightly higher in late-kill “planted green” plots.

  • The cool spring conditions delayed soybean emergence until after the late-kill cover had mostly desiccated. The benefit of planting green may be greater under conditions better for rapid soybean germination and seedling growth.

For more information on the slug study, view the presentation here.


Thriving Ag Project to be a Named Partner on a Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) Workshop

Thriving Ag Project to be a Named Partner on a Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) Workshop

The Thriving Ag project will be a named partner on a STAC workshop that is taking place the week of July 12, 2021. The workshop is a three-day discussion with technical assistance providers about what policy changes are needed to reach nutrient reduction goals. Project team members Lisa Wainger and Dan Read have been working on this workshop's steering committee for the better part of a year. You can view more information about the workshop here.

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Soil-Themed Youth Program to be Held at Penn State's Arboretum

Soil-Themed Youth Program to be Held at Penn State's Arboretum

Project team member and PhD student, Madeline Luthard, designed a soil-themed youth program for third through fifth graders that will be held at Penn State's Arboretum in July and August.


Researchers Develop a Smart Phone App to Facilitate Collaborative Data Collection About Technical Assistance Providers’ Farm Visits

Researchers Develop a Smart Phone App to Facilitate Collaborative Data Collection About Technical Assistance Providers’ Farm Visits

As part of their work to promote effective agricultural technical assistance, researchers with the Thriving Ag project have developed a smart phone app to facilitate collaborative data collection about technical assistance providers’ farm visits. Farm visits are where technical assistance providers meet with farmers to discuss how best to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and to address on-farm resources problems like erosion. These farm visits are a crucial step in promoting sustainable agriculture, because they lead to the development of conservation plans and help farmers seek out financial assistance for implementing conservation practices, such as forested riparian buffers, manure storage facilities, and grassed waterways.

The smart phone app – called TApp, or the Technical Assistance App – will provide technical assistance providers with a common platform to record information about their farm visits. The app will allow them to track what on-farm problems farmers want to address, what conservation practices they are interested in, and any concerns they have about the practices or application process. Once this information is entered into the app after a farm visit, technical assistance providers will be able to refer back to it and see profiles of the farmers with whom they work with and records of their one-on-one interactions with those farmers.

Currently, the Thriving Ag team is pilot testing the app with technical assistance providers from non-profits, conservation districts, and private consultancies. Once it is ready for full use, it will enable to the team to collaboratively test the effectiveness of different engagement strategies during farm visits. The hope is that this app will be both a useful tool for technical assistance providers to organize their work with farmers and a platform for further research on effective practices for engaging farmers about conservation.

For further questions about the mobile app, or Thriving Ag’s work on collaborating for effective agricultural technical assistance, please contact either Daniel Read (dread@umces.edu) or Lisa Wainger (wainger@umces.edu).


March 2021 All-Hands Thriving Ag Project Meeting

March 2021 All-Hands Thriving Ag Project Meeting

A Thriving Ag Project All-Hands meeting took place on March 22, 2021. The team finalized five draft scenarios for discussion with the Stakeholder Advisory Board (SAB) at this meeting. The five draft scenarios were (1) business as usual, (2) payments for performance of ecosystem services and achieving nutrient balance, (3) managing urban growth and maintaining existing farmland, (4) increasing farm profitability through local food efforts and growing urban-rural relationships, and (5) a dietary shift to plant-based proteins and alternative meats. Out of the meeting came several suggested refinements to the five scenarios that the Project Team will be incorporating into its work.

The project team will be selecting a subset of volunteers from the SAB, based on interest, expertise, and the content of the scenarios, to provide more frequent comment and feedback as the details of the five scenarios mentioned above are finalized. The entire SAB will be reconvened in fall 2021 to review the results of work by the project team on analyzing the five scenarios.

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Thriving Ag Project March 2021 Annual Progress Report

Thriving Ag Project March 2021 Annual Progress Report

Catch up on the Thriving Ag Project Team's and the Stakeholder Advisory Board's progress over the past year and their plans for the next reporting period in the Thriving Ag Project's March 2021 Annual Progress Report.

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Penn State's Press Release

Penn State's Press Release

Penn State releases a news article on the Thriving Ag project titled, Researchers aim to create thriving agricultural systems in urbanizing landscapes.

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University of Maryland's News Article on the Thriving Ag Project

University of Maryland's News Article on the Thriving Ag Project

The University of Maryland featured an article about the Thriving Ag project titled, Creating a Sustainable Future for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and its People.

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