Researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) are helping farmers feed a growing global population in ways that protect land and water resources in Virginia – and beyond.
Research by CALS faculty, from economists to entomologists, helps improve Chesapeake Bay water quality. “What we learn from these studies will also be applicable to other watersheds well beyond the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” says Alan Grant, CALS dean.
Researchers are encouraged to collaborate across disciplines to develop water quality solutions. “A priority research area in CALS is ‘agricultural profitability and environmental sustainability’ so many projects involve the study and development of agricultural systems that maintain high productivity and profitability in environmentally sustainable manners,” Grant says.
Research by agricultural economists informed a nutrient credit trading program that, they found, can speed water quality improvement. Agricultural engineers developed on-farm filters to minimize nutrient runoff, while CALS entomologists found fruit and vegetable pest management strategies to reduce chemical pesticide applications, minimizing the potential for any adverse impacts on the environment.
Healthier Soils, Crops
Improving farming practices, like manure application, can also improve the environment. “The most environmentally beneficial way to dispose of animal manures is to apply them to cropland,” says Tom Thompson, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences. “Manures are nutrient-rich, and as a result are valuable soil amendments. However, for the same reason they can be serious water pollutants if they run off of soils due to rainfall.”
Researchers are developing new methods and equipment for injecting manure below the soil surface, which keeps nutrients in the field during rainfall events. Even better: Nutrients under the soil surface are more available to crops.
“This reduces the need for fertilizer as well as improves water quality,” Thompson says.
Researchers are also developing ways to apply fertilizer at varying rates, according to plant and soil needs. Sensors measuring light reflectance from plant canopies can show whether plants in different parts of the field have enough nitrogen or are infected by pathogenic organisms. The remote sensors, which could be used on unmanned aerial vehicles in the future, may now be located in the field and on tractors.
The invasive brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) has damaged fruit crops in the Commonwealth since 2010. CALS researchers at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, in Winchester, are learning about the BMSB and developing Integrated Pest Management, or IPM.
IPM includes “scouting” levels of insect populations in a field or orchard, using controls only when populations reach certain thresholds. Pheromone-based studies in Winchester and elsewhere determine how BMSB populations respond to different treatments. The work helps researchers develop an IPM strategy for Virginia’s fruit industry.
Virginia Tech is a leader in IPM at the international level, too. Entomologists and other agricultural scientists working in the university’s Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab are helping keep the South American tomato leafhopper from spreading in Asia and damaging tomato, eggplant and other valuable food crops.
Such efforts show the global impact of agricultural research at Virginia Tech.
“Certainly our focus is on Virginia, but a lot of these problems are global in extent, and we have this ability to connect with people directly and engage them,” says Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands.