“Soil is a critical, yet often overlooked, resource in our effort to slow climate change,” says Dr. Denise Finney, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department. “This project will dig into plant-soil relationships to better understand how farm fields can be ecosystems that not only provide us food but also capture and store carbon.”
The $193K grant supports a two-year project based at the Whittaker Environmental Research Station (WERS), which is a 10-acre property owned by the College for research and teaching – it is located on the corner of College Avenue and 113. The funding was awarded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an arm of the US Department of Agriculture. “The grant will support 4 Summer Fellows and serve as a site for field research in my upper-level ecology course,” shares Dr. Finney.
The project revolves around a significant challenge of the 21st century - meeting food, fiber, and energy needs of a growing global population in the face of a changing climate. Developing agricultural systems that enhance soil carbon (C) sequestration is essential to increasing productivity and mitigating climate change through reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This project will investigate how cropping system diversification, specifically perennial forage intercropping, impacts the critical agroecosystem function of soil C sequestration. Dr. Finney expects that the depth distribution and quality of roots in diverse crop stands will augment C storage relative to single species both directly by increasing C inputs and indirectly through effects on the size, composition, and physiology of soil microbial communities that drive C cycling. To test these hypotheses, she and her research students will measure C pools, root traits, and soil microbial community characteristics and assess their interactions in simple and diverse crop stands in an established forage diversity experiment.
Dr. Finney sees the results of this seed grant as multi-dimensional. They will provide insight into the efficacy of using crop diversification to augment soil C stocks. These findings can be extended to develop and distribute management recommendations on intercropping practices to enhance soil C sequestration. Moreover, they will provide a foundation for subsequent projects that integrate undergraduate education with research. Incorporating authentic scientific research into the curriculum, the Biology Department faculty aim to increase the number of our students participating in original research.