Research Projects

IMG_20130702_150342_387Crop physiological response across the Chicago metro region

The vast majority of agricultural scientific knowledge has been obtained through field experimentation in rural growing environments, but the urban atmospheric growing environment is substantially different from the rural environment. To better understand the complex relationship between plants and the urban environment, we seek to accomplish three specific objectives: 1) characterize the atmospheric environment along an urban to rural latitudinal transect through the Chicago metro region with regular measurements of ambient CO2, ozone, temperature, light intensity, VPD, and wind speed; 2) quantify crop and cultivar response to altered environmental conditions along this transect; and 3) determine the relative influence of each environmental factor on crop and cultivar physiological response. This project is funded by the USDA-AMS Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and North Central Region SARE.


IMG_20130614_112153_156Performance and decomposition of biodegradable mulches

Biodegradable mulches, also known as biomulches, have become increasingly popular in recent years due to environmental concerns about plasticulture crop production methods. The ideal biodegradable mulch will provide specialty crop growers with the same benefits as plastic mulches and landscape fabrics (e.g., season-long weed suppression), but can be left in the field, incorporated in the soil, and decompose without accumulation of the material in soil over time. The objective of this study, sponsored by 3M Company, Inc., is to evaluate the agronomic performance, durability, and decomposition of proprietary and commercially available biodegradable mulches.


BlastingAir-propelled abrasive grits for integrated crop and weed management

Air-propelled abrasive weed control, or “blasting”, is the application of existing sand-blasting technology (typically used for industrial cleaning or etching applications) to physically abrade leaf, stem, and meristematic tissue to induce weed mortality within cropping systems. This novel weed management tactic has been used in organic corn and soybean cropping systems of the Midwest US, but has yet to be tested in vegetable crop systems. The objective of this study is to determine the efficacy of various organic materials (e.g., corn gluten meal and soybean meal) as grits for post-emergent abrasive weed control and characterize vegetable crop response to various grits and application rates. This project is funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture Organic Research and Education Initiative.


CCGLong-term effects of urban agricultural soil management systems

Soil contamination is the primary environmental challenge limiting the growth of urban agriculture in the US. However, many soil remediation strategies (e.g., organic amendment) and alternative soil management systems (e.g., raised-beds) can be used to mitigate plant and human exposure to soil contaminants. The objective of this study is to determine the long-term effects of urban soil management systems on crop yield, soil biological, chemical, and physical properties, and ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, water and nutrient retention, and resistance to pests.   


November 4, 2012 733Maximizing the efficiency and function of cover crop mixtures

Cover crops can contribute to improved soil health by adding biomass to the soil, increasing soil biological activity, retaining and building soil nutrient pools, and suppressing pests. However, cover crop species vary widely in their function and cost, so it is essential to understand the services provided by individual species allowing farmers to select the most cost-effective option for their particular management situation. Through a combination of greenhouse and field studies, our objective is to determine the relative contribution of different cover crop species to soil health on organic farms through measures of productivity, nutrient recovery, nitrogen fixation, weed suppression, and soil biological activity. This project is funded by The Ceres Trust Organic Research Initiative.    


Downloaded 9.13.13 921Vertical, hydroponic, high-tunnel strawberry production

Vertical, high-tunnel production of strawberries in stacked hydroponic pots may be an ideal cropping system for urban areas of the north central US because it allows urban farmers to address issues of limited land availability, soil contamination, and season extension. Moreover, fresh market strawberry is a popular consumer product with limited availability in the local food system. The objective of this study is to determine the optimum cultivars and planting dates for vertical, hydroponic strawberry production in high tunnels in southern and central Illinois. We also aim to evaluate the economic feasibility of this alternative specialty crop production system accounting for initial investment costs, operational and input costs, and crop yield and returns. This project is funded by the USDA-AMS Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.



SustaneBiological contributions of organic fertilizers to nitrogen availability and crop yield

Organic amendments and fertilizers can be a sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers, but there are many complex factors that influence nutrient release from organic materials. For organic fertilizers to be effective sources of nitrogen, farmers rely on microbes to mineralize organic forms of nitrogen (plant unavailable) into plant available nitrate and ammonium. Many soil factors, including soil texture, moisture, and temperature, are known to influence rates of nitrogen mineralization, but less is known about how the biological properties of the organic amendment influences nitrogen availability. The objective of this study, sponsored by Sustane Natural Fertilizer, Inc., is to determine the individual and interacting effects of soil and organic amendment microbial communities on nitrogen availability and crop uptake. 


Multifunctional buffer strips

Corn-soybean cropping systems dominate our fertile agricultural landscape in Illinois. However, some areas on a given farm can be classified as “marginal” and conservation strategies (e.g., grass buffer strips) are recommended in lieu of intensive grain crop cultivation. Installing a conservation buffer is a difficult choice for many farmers because of the potential loss in economic productivity. Thus, the goal for this research project is to develop and assess the potential for multifunctional buffer strips in Illinois that provide both environmental (i.e., reduced nitrate leaching) and economic benefits to the farmer. Multifunctional buffers studied include cover crops, forage and bioenergy crops, and woody perennial floral and edible crops (including elderberry, aronia berry, and currants). This project is funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council.