Nine billion people. That’s the projected world population by 2050, raising concerns among producers and policy makers about the sustainability of current crop production systems, said MTSU agricultural education assistant professor Chaney Mosley.
“A large part of the solution might be right under our feet,” said Mosley, the School of Agriculture faculty member spearheading the collaboration of a $749,999 U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant involving three universities.
The three-year research endeavor, which includes MTSU students, will investigate soil management practices for improved soil health and the related effects on crop and animal productivity, food quality and economic viability of integrated farming systems, Mosley said.
Seven MTSU researchers will lead a statewide team that includes Tennessee Tech University and University of Tennessee-Martin scientists. They will explore how various soil management practices might influence food production outcomes, with an emphasis on equipping current producers with resources to better inform on-the-farm decision-making practices and providing future producers with access to information.
“Our goals are clear,” Mosley said. “First, we aim to identify better management practices to improve crop and pasture production for enhanced productivity and food quality. Second, we will establish a food system training center to provide support in the areas of production, processing, preservation, safety and food science education.”
The project idea stemmed from MTSU faculty discussing their research interests in 2019. Samuel Haruna, assistant professor of soil science, believes soil is the foundation of life.
“Healthy soils produce healthy crops, healthy livestock, healthy food, healthy people and healthy communities,” said Haruna, whose comment resonated with others. Haruna had many students working on his research project this summer.
Keely O’Brien, assistant professor of fermentation science, was perhaps the most excited.
“A lot of people think we (in fermentation science) just make whiskey, wine and beer, but there are a lot of fermented food products, especially dairy foods,” she said.
Researchers will use sustainable practices to improve the health of soil in which corn will be grown and fed to dairy cows. Milk will then be harvested to make cheese, which will be used in consumer sensory panels.
Beyond tasting cheese, the economic impacts of implementing sustainable land management practices on crop productivity, milk quality and the producers will be analyzed by Kishor Luitel, assistant professor of agricultural economics.
“Milk quality depends on animal feed and feed quality depends upon soil health,” Luitel said.
Producers need to be aware of this relationship in order to make economic decisions on their farm.
The food system training center will be housed on MTSU’s campus and will host training sessions for producers, food entrepreneurs, agricultural education teachers and students.
“This approach will provide support for current farmers and educate the next generation of agriculturalists so that we can increase the number and diversity of people entering food and agriculture-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or Ag-STEM, disciplines,” Mosley said.
“Students are involved in a variety of ways,” he added. “At MTSU, they are supporting research projects. I’ll have some agricultural education students supporting my work in setting up the food systems training center, but not the research. My students will be growing vegetables to be used in food sensory. Students will participate in food sensory research projects. These are some ways in which students are involved in the research.
“Ultimately, research will inform instruction, as we will modify coursework as appropriate to include technology acquired through this grant as well as information learned from research will be taught in a variety of our ag courses.”
Additional MTSU agriculture faculty working on the project include Jessica Carter, School of Agriculture director; animal science professor Kevin Downs; and Alanna Vaught, agriculture education graduate program director. Agriculture is one of 11 MTSU College of Basic and Applied Sciences departments.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)