New Cover Crops for Better Organic Farming
Legume cover crops are essential to the long-term sustainability of organic cropping systems because they fix nitrogen, improve soil health, suppress weeds, and provide resources for beneficial organisms such as pollinators. Unlike cash crops, however, cover crops have not been bred to optimize the traits that organic farmers need. This deficiency means that modest investments in germplasm improvement could yield large benefits. Matthew R. Ryan and Laurie E. Drinkwater, School of Integrative Plant Science, have found that the improvement of legume cover crop germplasm could address a multitude of critical problems facing organic farmers.
Ryan and Drinkwater are working with a team of cover crop and organic agriculture experts from multiple universities, non-profit organizations, private sector companies, and governmental agencies, including North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The group is working with leading organic farmers to breed new varieties of hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), winter pea (Pisum sativum), and crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), through traditional and participatory methods. They are improving organic production systems by addressing persistent challenges with legume cover crop performance and consistency. Through the creation of the Northeastern Cover Crops Council, they will also ensure that efforts continue beyond the duration of this project. The work directly addresses legislatively defined Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) goals by facilitating development of organic production methods, conducting on-farm research, and developing new and improved seed varieties for organic systems. This project is unique because the network of research and farm sites ensures that the work is applicable across multiple regions, scales, and organic cropping systems.