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US (KY): University of Kentucky researcher leads organic farming advancements using mesotunnels in $3.5 million grant

Diversification continues to be an important part of organic agriculture. Organic growers' commitment to this practice opens new doors to markets, acts as a safeguard against risks, promotes biodiversity, and fosters the growth of robust local communities and economies. However, organic diversification comes with its own set of challenges.

University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment researchers aim to bring predictability to the organic market thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture's Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) program.

Alongside UK researchers Ric Bessin and Mark Williams, David Gonthier is working with lead scientists and extension specialists from Cornell University, Iowa State University and The Organic Center on a four-year project entitled "Expanding Resilient Climate and Pest Protection Systems for Diversified Organic Specialty Crop Producers." The endeavor highlights mesotunnels as a potential dual solution to pest and climate challenges.

"Mesotunnels are essentially row covers made of nylon fine-mesh nets, supported by tall hoops, designed to serve as an effective barrier against insect pests and insect-transmitted diseases," Gonthier, an assistant professor in the UK Department of Entomology, said. "These are durable, breathable, and light-permeable mesh nets that may also protect against some adverse weather conditions."

David Gonthier

The main objective is to address the challenges organic farmers face while cultivating fruits and vegetables in the nation's Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast regions. The research involves conducting field experiments and on-farm mesotunnel trials with a wide range of crops, including broccoli and cabbage, squash and melons, and eggplant.

"This project does not merely stop at identifying the potential of mesotunnels," said Kathleen Fiske, a doctoral student working on the project. "It also delves into innovative strategies to seamlessly integrate mesotunnels into diversified organic fruit and vegetable rotations. The goal is to understand how mesotunnels can enhance crop protection and how they can strategically employ them to maximize grower profits."

The research will also address how growers perceive mesotunnels relative to other protection strategies, including pesticide use.

"While mesotunnels reduce insecticide use, they are made of plastic, and there is growing concern surrounding plastic use in our food system from the field to the grocery store," Gonthier said. "Grower, consumer and industry perceptions of pesticide use, plastic and many other factors may shape future adoption, depending on how mesotunnels fit into the narrative."

Through an advisory panel, surveys, listening sessions, and on-farm trials, the project will maintain a valuable, open channel for growers and stakeholders to provide input.

Gonthier said a well-structured regional and national outreach program will ensure that project knowledge and insights reach a broad audience. By highlighting the most promising protection systems, researchers hope to empower thousands of growers and educate millions of consumers about the benefits of mesotunnels along with their sustainability role in the organic specialty crop industry.

"Organic farming is notoriously challenging in the Southeast United States, and those challenges become a moving target with ever-increasing extreme weather events associated with climate change," said Amber Sciligo, director of science programs at The Organic Center. "We are very excited that this work research will offer more effective tools for organic pest management and weather protection for farms of various sizes—from the backyard garden to commercial fields."

This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, under award number 2023-51300-40855. USDA is an equal-opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the US Department of Agriculture.


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