Farmers in the U.S. are becoming a more diverse population, especially those in vegetable production. Immigrant and minority farmers often face particular challenges of land tenure and not having access to high-quality farmland, which exacerbates their struggles with the challenge that all farmers have of how to manage tradeoffs that balance crop production with ecological sustainability.
Vegetable farmers typically grow many different vegetables, some of which are planted and harvested during the spring and fall, leaving bare, unused soil during the summer. Cover crops grown during this bare period could provide benefits to soil structure and nutrient status; inhibit weed growth during the long, hot days of summer; and protect soil from intense summer storms that are typical in the Upper Midwest.
With the ultimate goal of developing more sustainable food production systems, UMN researchers explored plant-soil-microbe relationships driving soil fertility in organic systems. To do this, they developed a farmer-driven project to investigate the role summer cover crops can play in enhancement of soil nutrients and overall health when grown for short periods of time. Significantly, they partnered with a variety of immigrant farmer grower groups for on-farm studies and shared their soil health information directly with producers.
Results showed increases in soil nitrogen (N) following the use of a variety of cover crops, especially hairy vetch. However, Minnesota’s variable climate decreases the potential of legume cover crops to deliver N compared to more temperate states — thus highlighting the need for increased winter tolerance for cover crop legumes as well as improved understanding of the soil microbes that associate with those legumes and promote nitrogen cycling. Research results were shared via Extension programming and meetings, including twice at the Emerging Farmers Conference and at the Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference, and have reached approximately 2,000 farmers over the last five years. The farmers have responded well to the team's hands-on approach that provides realistic practices for them to implement. Their success is further evidenced by the team having over $1.5 million in continued funding for this work via USDA-SARE and NRCS-CIG programs.
A 30-page curriculum handbook titled Soil Health & Nutrient Management for Immigrant Farmers PDF) was developed. This resource is designed to be culturally appropriate for immigrant growers and uses approachable language and technical concepts. The handbook is intended to serve as both a stand-alone resource for introductory soil science and soil fertility concepts, as well as a teaching tool that can be used in classrooms or one-on-one interactions.
This work has allowed the team to deepen their relationships and establish trust with the farmers. Increased collaboration between the UMN, immigrant farming organizations, and indigenous farming groups has led to additional grants and collaborative projects aimed at strengthening the farmers’ operations and access to markets. The research team has also benefited from the expertise of a nine-member Grower Advisory Board including individuals and organizations representing Appalachian, Hmong, urban and refugee farmers. The Board has provided critical input into fine-tuning research questions and methodologies and outreach strategies.
Today’s community food systems, including school and community gardens, horticultural therapy programs, and urban agriculture education NGOs, are richly complex. Working within these systems, staff and students will help individuals from a range of backgrounds combine their strengths to achieve the common goal of food production. Extending advanced soil science concepts would allow both beginning and seasoned farmers to enhance soil quality and productivity of their organic systems. Partnerships like this provide the opportunity for researchers and students to work alongside farmers to answer questions and help them maximize productivity and improve agricultural sustainability of their farms. The combination of collaboration, trust and long-term relationship building has yielded significant results and helped guide community instructors as they work with increasingly diverse populations.