Lincoln University is using a grant to help small, Missouri farmers

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JEFFERSON CITY - Lincoln University has gotten a half-million dollar grant, which could transform the way small-scale farmers do their work. Over the next three years, Lincoln will research and test different systems to make small-scale, organic farming more effective. 

While there is an increased demand for organic products, small organic farms - most in Missouri are about five acres - are having trouble affording equipment needed to fulfill USDA requirements.

"With this project, we are going to conduct research and extension in cover crops and systems that are really going to help small-scale farmers that cannot afford buying expensive equipment," said lead researcher Jamie Pinero.

The research involves preparing the ground and then planting cover crops - which are plants grown to protect and enrich the soil - and then establishing transplanted cash crops.

Lincoln University will be testing a cover crop, no-till system, which can address critical concerns involving vegetable production and pest management.

"Nitrogen and weed suppression are two big problems on organic vegetable farms, and integrating cover crops in this way will help both suppress weeds and contribute nitrogen to the soil," said research assistant Justin Keay.

By using cover crops, farmers can eliminate the use of herbicides and other dangerous chemicals on their crops. 

"Vegetable production involves many practices that compromise soil health, like cultivation, tilling," lead researcher Jaime Pinero said. "This can limit production and productivity." 

Pinero's goal is to address these limitations and use research to evaluate different cover crop termination methods, evaluate living mulches and also incorporate compost into the system.

Keay said the agro-ecological study will incorporate entomology, plant pathology, weed science and soil health. All of this is necessary to promote biodiversity in farms and continue organic farming.

"We really need to start thinking about the farm as an ecosystem," he said.

In addition to the agricultural benefits, there are cost-benefits as well. Pinero and his staff will conduct an economic analysis to assess the cost of inputs, labels and the value of the cash crop produced in each of the systems tested. 

"We are going to increase the awareness and promote the adoption of these systems," Pinero said. 

The research begins now with planting cover crops, then establishing a cash crop in the spring of 2018, and the study will conclude in 2020. 

"We're hoping to get some data and improve some methods that small producers in the state of Missouri, small vegetable producers, will be able to incorporate cover crops into their production system in a meaningful way which will help address some of their critical management concerns on a lot of organic farms," Keay said. 

This research will take place at the Alan T. Busby Farm, which is one of the largest organic research farms in the midwest, totaling in at 280 acres.