Researchers receive $1 million to boost organic grain production in Maine

Researchers at the University of Maine have received a $1 million federal grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture to continue their efforts in boosting organic grain production in northern New England.

“We are very excited by this new USDA award in that it recognizes the impact of the work we’ve done with farmers, millers and bakers with our prior grant to build a local, organic bread wheat economy in our region,” Ellen Mallory, University of Maine Cooperative Extension specialist and associate professor of sustainable agriculture at UMaine, says.

The grant — which will be shared with researchers at the University of Vermont — will provide the needed support to expand the local organic grain sector to include other grains including oats, barley, rye and spelt.

The project is aimed to help farmers combat critical constraints in organic grain production by designing robust weed and disease management strategies, establishing efficient legume green manure systems and expanding social networks within their communities.

The researchers will work to develop and evaluate sowing and hoeing equipment and rotation budgeting tools to help farmers reduce production risks.

This is one of many collaborative projects Mallory and her UMaine colleagues have conducted with the University of Vermont to advance local grain production, processing and use in the region.

“By working together, we are able to test varieties and production methods over more sites, or in some cases divide up research questions that need addressing. The results are relevant to everyone in the region. As well, we hope to connect the farmers and grain-based business across states,” says Mallory.

For the current project, UMaine will receive 60 percent of funds as the lead institution.

Though New England has excelled in developing organic dairy and vegetable sectors, it lags behind other regions for organic grain production, says Mallory. However, she notes that the recent increase in organic wheat production in Maine and Vermont — from 125 hectares in 2008 to 700 hectares in 2013 — demonstrates New England’s potential for growth.

Mallory’s research will focus on optimizing green manure systems for organic grain production by evaluating different legume species and legume/grass mixtures for their ability to produce nitrogen to support the growth of grain crops. She will then compare different green manure termination methods to see how the timing of nitrogen release matches up with crops needs.

The project also will address weed management, with weeds being a critical production challenge for organic grain farmers who are not allowed to use synthetic herbicides.

Insufficient weed control not only reduces grain crop yields directly, it also discourages farmers from growing certain crops that can provide much needed rotational diversity, including soybean, field peas and canola.

Eric Gallandt, professor of weed ecology and management at UMaine, will lead the project efforts to evaluate different planting and cultivation methods from northern Europe that may provide more reliable weed control. He will work with an agricultural engineer from UVM to create designs for how farmers can adapt their existing equipment to utilize these methods.

Another important constraint the researchers will address is leaf- and seed-borne diseases, which is a serious threat to long-term organic grain production. Heather Darby, the project leader from UVM, will oversee a region-wide survey to identify the most prevalent disease pressures on organic farms. She will test organically approved treatments for head blight, Fusarium, a disease that causes problems in New England.

To create a regional organic grain economy, the team will work to strengthen knowledge, skills and networks among farmers, processors, end-users and educators. Winter workshops, field days and farm tours will provide learning and networking opportunities within each state.

The grant also will support farmer exchanges and video conferencing between Maine and Vermont, as well as with counterparts in neighboring Canadian provinces.

The project, titled “Innovative Sowing, Cultivation, and Rotation Strategies to Address Weed, Fertility, and Disease Challenges in Organic Food and Feed Grains,” involves nine researchers from UMaine and UVM and will span four years.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721