Graduate student research contributes to sustainable farming in Southwest Minnesota

By Anne Dybsetter, Executive Director, Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership

December 2018

During fall term 2018, two graduate research assistants helped uncover emerging opportunities in sustainable agricultural practices. Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (SWRSDP) worked with partners to engage Erik Muckey (MBA/MPP ‘20) and Kathy Dooley (MGIS ‘19) to research pressing questions related to soil health, water quality, and perennial crops.

Erik Muckey is reaching out to farmers, land managers, and small grain millers to explore how an emerging perennial grain known as KernzaTM could be grown, processed, and marketed in south-central Minnesota.

Muckey’s research project was initiated by a group of farmers along the Interstate 90 corridor -- the I-90 Restorative Farmers -- who are looking for a better understanding of opportunities for perennial crops. Muckey, who is currently earning a dual masters degree in both business and public policy, has a strong interest in rural issues and agriculture, giving him expertise to tackle their questions. 

Intermediate wheatgrass

Intermediate wheatgrass, photo from University of Minnesota's Forever Green Initiative

KernzaTM is the trade name of the grain produced by intermediate wheatgrass. It is a promising, early-stage crop being developed by the Land Institute and the University of Minnesota, along with other partners. In addition to presenting opportunities for perennial grain systems, intermediate wheatgrass can also be utilized for grazing and water quality management.

As his project concludes, Muckey will present a report and lay out supply chain scenarios and other considerations for integrating intermediate wheatgrass into a productive and sustainable landscape. In the long term, this project will provide farmers with a clearer understanding of how this perennial crop could become a future part of their planting mix.

Katherine Dooley, a University of Minnesota graduate student in geographic information systems (GIS), took to the highways of Southwest Minnesota this October to interview farmers. The sustainable agriculture case studiy project tapped into Dooley’s expertise in landscape analysis and agriculture.

Working alongside Theresa Keaveny and Kent Solberg of the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) and Dr. Dean Current of the University of Minnesota's Center for Integrated Agricultural Management (CINRAM), Dooley convened an advisory group that included farmers, a soil scientist and a crop consultant. With their guidance, Dooley identified key questions relevant to farmers interested in trying new sustainability and soil health practices. She then visited the farms of nine producers to document their experiences with various practices. Interviewees had expertise in wide-ranging practices, including grazing, organic small grains, cover crops and minimal tillage in corn and soybeans.

The case study approach, according to Dooley, Keaveny, and Current, is grounded in the understanding that farmers learn best from each other. The next phase of the project is to expand an online mapping tool through which farmers can search for practices that they are interested in and learn about each other’s experiences.

Muckey’s and Dooley’s work is made possible by the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (SWRSDP) and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA). Other key partners include Green Lands Blue Waters, Forever Green, the Sustainable Farming Association, the Center for Integrated Natural Resource and Agricultural Management, and farmers around the region.

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