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Organic Farmers Beliefs Crucial for Adopting Soil Microbiome-Friendly Practices, Study Finds

A new study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Cornell University reveals that organic farmers' beliefs about the soil microbiome significantly influence their adoption of microbiome-supportive practices, which can enhance plant defenses and reduce insect pests.

Saurabh Shukla
Organic Farmers Beliefs Crucial for Adopting Soil Microbiome-Friendly Practices, Study Finds (Photo Source: Pixabay)
Organic Farmers Beliefs Crucial for Adopting Soil Microbiome-Friendly Practices, Study Finds (Photo Source: Pixabay)

Organic farming has been shown to support soil microorganisms that boost plant defenses and reduce insect pests. However, the effectiveness of these practices can vary, and understanding farmers' motivations is key to promoting microbiome-supportive techniques. A recent study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Cornell University explores how organic farmers' beliefs about the microbiome impact their soil management practices.

The study, titled “Motivating organic farmers to adopt practices that support the pest-suppressive microbiome relies on understanding their beliefs,” was published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. It delves into the perspectives of organic farmers on the soil microbiome and its influence on agricultural practices.

Co-author Shadi Atallah, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at Illinois, mentioned that there is minimal research on farmers' perspectives regarding the soil microbiome and its influence on their choice of agricultural practices. The ultimate goal is to comprehend the economic incentives for organic farmers to adopt microbiome-friendly practices in the future.

The research involved a survey of 85 organic vegetable farmers in New York, examining their beliefs about the microbiome, farming practices, and motivations. Participants were also asked to provide soil samples from their fields. The survey explained the interaction between soil microbes and plant defenses and asked farmers to express their agreement with various statements about factors influencing the soil microbiome.

Lead author Elias Bloom, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell, observed that nearly all farmers (96%) acknowledged the microbiome's impact on plant defenses and pest suppression on their farms. However, there was considerable diversity in their beliefs regarding the factors that contribute to a healthy microbiome.

The study identified seven belief clusters based on the farmers' views on the impact of on-farm practices, external factors, or a combination of both. Farmers who believed in the significance of practices like no-till or cover cropping tended to adopt these methods, aligning with scientific literature on supporting the microbiome.

The researchers also examined demographic factors like farm size and age of the farmer concerning practice adoption. For instance, larger farms generally exhibit less diversification and lower likelihood of adopting practices such as no-till and biological mulches. According to Bloom, expanding the scale of no-tillage and diversified crop production is crucial to promoting these ecosystem benefits on larger farms.

Atallah emphasized the importance of targeted messaging by Extension services and land management agencies to encourage investments in the soil microbiome. While socio-economic characteristics can serve as proxies for beliefs, understanding the latter is crucial for fully grasping farmer motivations.

Co-author Clare Casteel, associate professor in the School of Integrated Plant Science at Cornell, highlighted another significant and promising aspect of the study that they plan to explore further. They have collected soil samples from all participating farmers across various sites. Their next steps involve measuring changes in the microbiome and connecting biological findings with economic perspectives and current farmer beliefs.

Atallah pointed out that the study is exploratory and focuses on a sample of organic farmers in New York, a state where organic farming is thriving. The findings, though not conclusive on a national scale, can inform future research on microbiome-friendly practices.

Bloom highlighted that understanding why different farmers choose specific practices based on their beliefs about the microbiome is an initial step toward incentivizing organic practices. He also discussed potential market incentives, such as a microbiome-friendly ecolabel on food products.

Regarding the broader implications of their research, Bloom drew parallels between soil and human health. He noted that just as diet affects human gut microbiome and health, agricultural practices influence soil microbiome and crop health. These parallels growing public interest in the microbiome and its impact across various domains.

Bloom suggested that their work in organic agriculture and soil microbiome is akin to broader efforts to comprehend the microbiome's role in human health and farming systems, underscoring that much remains to be understood about these interconnected dynamics.

(Source: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

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