Research addresses many ways to solve climate problems on farms | Harvests

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Climate change research is nothing new at the University of Illinois. However, developments this year have captured the attention of both Midwestern farmers and international climate change experts.

The aerial view above shows the carbon hexagon used in research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Photo courtesy of RIPE Project/University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

This summer and fall, breadbox-sized robots developed here are ready to plant 10,000 acres of cover crops in farmers’ fields.

The development of new varieties of corn and soybeans, “agrivoltaic” fields where crops and solar panels are productive side by side, and research into perennial crops that could potentially be grown here for biofuels are other sources. attention.

Corn ethanol alone will not meet the scale of the need for renewable fuels, said Don Ort, professor of plant biology and crop science at the University of Illinois.

The ethanol and biodiesel industries have been positive and profitable developments for farmers, but more research is needed on sugarcane and other long-term crops, he said.

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As for the ethanol industry, “we shouldn’t shut it down, but we shouldn’t grow,” Ort said.

However, several barriers prevent farmers from adopting new energy crops. Many are not produced commercially and need to be further developed to increase production.

“Technology needs to catch up,” said Madhu Khanna, co-director of the university’s Center for Economics of Sustainability.

Perennial grasses are great for the environment and diversify the landscape, but growing them can pose a financial risk to farmers, she said.

The culture requires 10 to 15 years to be productive and some require significant start-up costs. There are also issues of having available markets and agronomic information to help farmers.

However, eventually, carbon sequestration markets and incentives could encourage some producers, Khanna said.

Solar and soy together?

Khanna is also leading a four-year, $10 million, USDA-funded study to investigate “agrivoltaic” systems where crops and solar panels are in the same field – maintaining crop production, production of renewable energy and increased farm profitability.

Illinois will work with teams in Arizona and Colorado to develop different crops for different climates. In Arizona, tomatoes and peppers are already grown this way.

In the Midwest, the focus will be on row crops, starting with shorter crops, including soybeans. Research will be done on the solar panels so they can be moved up and down and rotated to accommodate farm machinery and follow the sun as it moves across the field.

“It’s even possible to grow maize this way,” Khanna said.

Fearing the loss of prime cropland to solar fields, many counties and states are banning large-scale solar fields from prime land, hence the interest in different options.

Agrivoltaic systems might even be able to increase yields. With climate change and more extreme temperatures, solar panels could protect plants, she said.

Cover crops are one of the most touted green options these days, but the challenge in the Midwest is planting them in a timely manner and with good emergence.

This year, 10,000 acres of cover crops will be planted using small robots developed at the university. Researchers receive feedback from Illinois Farm Bureau focus groups. They want to see what the farmers think – “what they are going to adopt or why not,” Khanna said.

Because these technologies are so new, their success depends on farmers’ willingness and ability to overcome short-term challenges, she said.

Professor Girish Chowdhary of the University of Illinois and his team have been using the small robots in agricultural research here for a few years. Research is also underway to see if robots can help with weed control, reduce passes and offer potential savings on chemical costs.

Other research focuses on the future of popular cultures here. Long-term data over 50 years shows that climate change is negatively impacting corn and soybean yields. Today, some of that is offset by new varieties and technologies.

However, as crops become more heat-tolerant and drought-resistant, some of the new varieties are less productive under normal conditions, Khanna said.

“Climate change doesn’t just mean hotter and drier. It also means variability,” she said.

Crops will have to deal with a wider range of conditions, but not just the extremes, she said.

The goal is to look ahead and design crops for the future, said Ort, who has worked on climate change issues for more than 20 years.

Seed companies are interested in the university’s research into new varieties, he said. Most of them only look a few years into the future, while the research here looks up to 10 years into the future.

Ort is among those studying the increased vapor pressure deficit in corn, a factor that means it will take more water to make a bushel of corn in the future than it does today. This is a serious problem in parts of the country where maize is not irrigated. Researchers will need to design more water-efficient crops, he said.

There are complicated traits involved. There will be a “sweet spot” of how much water you let out and how much CO2 comes in.

“It is a big and urgent challenge. It’s above us for 10, 20, 30 years. We are optimistic,” said Ort, known for his work on maximizing photosynthesis in plants as part of the RIPE program – Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency.

Such advances require genetic engineering, an area where there are problems with public acceptance.

“But it’s a necessary path to meet this challenge,” he said.

Teresa H. Sadler