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Penn State Ag Research and Global Food Security

Posted: May 23, 2011

University research on new agricultural technologies and sustainable practices benefits US farmers who are focused on increasing economic and environmental sustainability and also farmers in developing countries who strive to produce increased yields for food insecure communities.
Visits with farmers was central to the visit to rural Nicaragua. University research on new agricultural technologies and sustainable practices benefits US farmers who are focused on increasing economic and environmental sustainability.

Visits with farmers was central to the visit to rural Nicaragua. University research on new agricultural technologies and sustainable practices benefits US farmers who are focused on increasing economic and environmental sustainability.

At Penn State, plant nutritionist Jonathan Lynch is researching making plant root systems more efficient rather than increasing soil inputs.  Based on Dr. Lynch’s research, plant breeders who do not have sophisticated tools to look at molecular markers can use simple “shovelomics” to investigate plant traits they might use.  For example, in the case of corn, deep roots are an advantage for maintaining high nitrogen levels, whereas with beans, shallow roots with longer root hairs result in improved phosphorus uptake.

Through an international pest management research support program, Ed Rajotte, Penn State entomologist, provides integrated pest management (IPM) support for sustainable agriculture programs in developing countries.  Domestically, he focuses on social and economic issues associated with IPM.  In developing countries, he adapts his extension knowledge to develop IPM approaches for tropical vegetables and also information and impact analysis systems.

In the area of tree fruit production, our Penn State multi-disciplinary team is developing total systems approaches to increasing crop efficiency.  Penn State pomologists focus their research on new tree architectures that are more efficient at intercepting sunlight.  The most efficient tree canopies are less than 3 ft wide, which coincidentally is more adaptable to new sensor technologies being investigated by Penn State engineers.   Growers are important collaborators in the research and twelve have one-acre pilot orchards in which we are testing variations in tree training as well as advanced IPM strategies.

Our team of university faculty and growers has an opportunity beginning this year to apply what we are learning to a new outreach program in Talolinga, Nicaragua.  The program is a partnership between Gettysburg College’s Project Gettysburg Leon (PGL), Penn State Extension’s Young Grower Alliance (YGA), and a group of growers seeking to create a unique community-based agricultural extension system.  If this concept works in the rural community of Talolinga, it can easily be adopted by other rural communities. 

We are in the early stages of the planning process and recognize the importance of this being a two-way exchange of information on how best to increase the sustainability of our agricultural systems in both countries.  The exchange began spring of 2010 when Greg Bowles, PGL’s country director, and Mercedes Alvarez, a Sustainable Harvest extensionist, visited area fruit farms.  PGL then invited YGA to send an ag delegation to the Leon district of Nicaragua in January.

Greg introduced the delegation to a number of rural communities that are interested in diversifying their production to increase food security.  The farmers in these communities shared their ideas and also their needs for increasing the sustainability of their agricultural systems.  In the mountain-top community of Talolinga, isolated by its geography and rainy season road wash-outs, production of corn and beans has been the primary source of income for 45 families.  We stayed in the home of one of the farm families and visited farms of other members of the community. 
With farmers joining us along the way, we hiked across mountain ridges, saw innovative attempts at crop diversification, and explored ways in which a farmer-to-farmer program might work.  One of the many plantings that caught our attention was a plot that a young farmer named Javiar showed us in which he grafted papaya to a size-restricting root system and also had designed a trap to capture vegetable garden pests.  We had to wonder at the possibilities if problem-solving resources and simple crop monitoring tools were to be made available. 

In interviews on his work with developing efficient root systems, Penn State’s Professor Lynch advances the idea of a second Green Revolution that helps poor rural communities “grow more food under tough conditions affordably.”  Penn State College of Agriculture efforts in many areas – production, integrated pest management, human nutrition, to name a few – have the potential to support this new revolution in global food security.

Dr. Tara Baugher is the Penn State Extension Tree Fruit Educator serving Adams County and the fruit belt region.  Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce.  Penn State Extension in Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg, PA   17325, phone 717-334-6271 or e-mail AdamsExt@psu.edu. 


Visit http://www.younggrowers.org/Nicaragua.html to learn more about this initiative.