Bringing the U to organic farmers
Developing best practices for small scale organic agriculture
s the nation takes a more critical look at corporate agriculture and the environmental effects of pesticides, the demand for organic produce is on the rise. But what makes these systems financially sustainable? While broad-spectrum pesticides make it easy for large farms to control insects and weeds, the small organic farmer often has to employ labor-intensive and innovative solutions to keep crops safe from new biological threats.
Aimee Talbot, a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in Applied Plant Sciences, wants to help organic farms safely manage pests by engaging directly with farmers to help them learn and implement horticulture techniques studied at the University of Minnesota.
Talbot’s current research involves testing six different broccoli varieties at two different sites—one at Cornercopia, the U’s student organic farm on the St. Paul campus and the other at Garden Farme, a certified organic farm in Ramsey, MN that provides produce for a number of high-profile Twin Cities restaurants—to see whether any are more naturally resistant to insects. She also has a greenhouse study in which she adds larvae to the plants and measures the plants’ response. Her study uses broccoli as a model organism for the broader Brassica family, which includes other cruciferous vegetables like kale and Brussels sprouts.
“What I’m learning, especially with the plant-insect interactions in the greenhouse, may be extrapolated to other cruciferous crops we’re growing,” Talbot says. “The cruciferous vegetables are becoming especially popular due to their nutritional value, too.”
From retail to research
Talbot is not new to the organic horticulture scene. After working for a couple years in cooperatively owned and operated natural food markets, Talbot has a sense of the challenges—and potential impacts—for sustainable farming at the small-scale level. “The coop opened my eyes to what sustainable agriculture meant and what it involved.” Talbot developed an interest in the production side of organic agriculture, and now her research at the U brings her in close quarters with local farmers and their practices.
“In a lot of ways, the organic farmers are more progressive than we are at the University,” she says. “There is experimentation with things that we might not necessarily research.” A mid-season infestation can severely impact a farmer’s economic success. “Their crops are their livelihood so they advance quicker than research. They’re innovative, as they need to be,” says Talbot.
Bruce Bacon, the owner of Garden Farme where Aimee tends her research plot, agrees. "Organic farming has been misrepresented as backwards and unscientific," says Bacon, although experimental inquiry has always been a big part of Bacon's ever-evolving knowledge of organic farming. "I would like to find more graduate students to populate the organic farming research agenda," Bacon, "especially since it is growing so much in terms of public awareness."
Writing skills are critical for scientists, too
No matter how impactful a scientist’s research, it won’t make a difference to the broader community unless the findings can be communicated effectively.
Aimee began her post-secondary career studying English at the University of Minnesota- Duluth before coming to the Twin Cities campus for her graduate degree in Applied Plant Sciences. What at first felt like a late start— studying English instead of science as an undergrad—now gives Talbot a leg up in her Master’s work.
“A lot of science is writing. Reports, lab notes, communicating with undergrads, PI, collaborators, writing grants and literature reviews... it’s a ton of writing,” says Talbot. “At first I felt behind, or self conscious. I don’t feel that anymore. A lot of what I need I can learn. Time and dedication are key.”
Bridging the gap: Bringing research to the farmstead
Talbot hopes to use her combined skills in communication and scientific inquiry to bridge the gap between education and research for organic farmers. Aiming for a career in university extension and outreach, she says, “I want to make the University’s expertise available to farmers by working in the field and answering questions.”
As part of her North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR SARE) grant, Talbot is coordinating a field day at Garden Farme to focus on pest management in organic systems with about 25 local organic farmers. There she will present pest-management techniques to farmers for them to implement in their own practices and organize time for attendees to interact with other researchers and growers as well. The field day is open to the public, and, Talbot says, “We’d like to see as many folks as possible!” Although the details haven’t been ironed out yet, Talbot and Bacon plan to set aside a full weekend in July or August 2016 for the educational event at Garden Farme.
Bacon has hosted similar events in the past, and attests they're an excellent environment for learning just by virtue of gathering people with both research and practical expertise. “If you’re standing someplace with someone who’s a grower and an academic and a hobbyist,” he says, “when someone comes up with a question, you can find the answer.”
"Organic farming is strong in Minnesota and it’s evident that it’s growing. My ultimate goal is to connect with famers and hear what kind of research they want to see at the U,” Talbot says.