Agriculture and Environment

logo of sun rising over fieldsOur agriculture and environment researchers work to improve food security, ensure a clean water supply, develop climate change solutions, and bolster the health and sustainability of natural and managed systems.

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars.  

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of agriculture and the environment. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research.

Farmer mental health and COVID-19

Farmer in field

While popular media has covered some issues in agriculture related to COVID-19, to date no research evidence demonstrates impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of farmers, especially with regards to Illinois. Research has demonstrated that psychological distress among producers is associated with higher rates of injury as well as lower rates of adopting new technologies. Assisting in improving mental health may benefit producer safety and farm efficiency and production.

In a project at the very intersection of agriculture and health, ACES researchers Courtney Cuthbertson and Josie Rudolphi are collecting data from agricultural producers in Illinois about the impacts of COVID-19 on their day-to-day operations and finances, as well as on their mental health. So far, the team has collected over 2,300 responses.

Once completed, Illinois Extension educators will use the findings to share useful mental health information and resources, normalizing conversations about mental health to decrease stigma. Since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were put into place, the researchers have collaborated with Extension educators Chelsea Harbach, Phillip Alberti, Karla Belzer, and Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker to create and offer three- to five-minute recorded segments called, "A Moment for Mental Health," during commercial agriculture webinars.

The project will also identify opportunities and barriers to training licensed medical providers, including mental health workers, primary care physicians, nurses, and others, in agricultural literacy. Agricultural producers may be hesitant to seek out mental health care due to shortages of mental health providers in their communities or due to stigma. Knowing mental health and other health providers have a background in or knowledge about agriculture may help reduce barriers and make it easier for producers to ask for help.

Funding: The researchers have applied for USDA NIFA Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network funding (potentially $7.2 million over three years).

ACES researchers:
Courtney Cuthbertson, Human Development and Family Studies
Josie Rudolphi, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Chelsea Harbach; Phillip Alberti; Karla Belzer; and Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker, University of Illinois Extension

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Improving organic corn

farm workers in corn field
Left to right: Carmen Ugarte and students Mario Nunez Flores and Binod Ghimire

Organic corn is an attractive option for many producers, with its reduced environmental footprint and ability to fetch higher premiums in the marketplace. However, little information and even fewer seed options exist to allow for scale-up. In a transdisciplinary project, Illinois scientists and regional farmers are collaborating to develop tasty, nutrient-rich, processing-ready organic corn options that thrive in Midwestern growing conditions.

Illinois breeders have identified promising hybrids that can be grown organically and processed into nutritious, high-quality food products. A regional farmer network tests the hybrids in strip trials and provides feedback to the researchers, who are currently ramping up seed production for the most promising food and feed grade varieties. Meanwhile, soil scientists are measuring soil biology and chemistry to understand how management and environment determine above- and belowground productivity of organic corn varieties.

The research team is highly engaged with the farmer network, providing educational content on business practices, intellectual property considerations, and the breeding process. But the researchers are also learning from farmers, who share their real-world experiences growing organic corn. Together, the collaborators will select and hone high-performing, stress-tolerant hybrids that will meet grower needs across varied Midwestern landscapes.

As certain hybrids rise to the top, these will be tested for processing quality, nutritional content, and taste, ensuring the final products will meet consumer demands as well as grower preferences.

Ultimately, with this project, a more robust organic corn market is on its way. 

Funding: USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension program ($2 million).

ACES researchers:
Michelle Wander, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Carmen Ugarte, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Martin Bohn, Crop Sciences
Bryan Endres, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
Juan Andrade, Food Science and Human Nutrition

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How COVID-19 impacts farmers in Ghana

Ghanaian researcher in field
Edward Martey in Ghana crop field

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected countries worldwide, causing disruptions in food supply and economic systems. Developing countries without robust and resilient agricultural production systems are particularly challenged.

Illinois researchers at the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab are studying how farmers in Ghana mitigate COVID-19 disruptions. The information will inform policy decisions to support food production systems. 

Ghana implemented a partial lock-down to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The country’s agricultural production center is in the north, while the major urban consumption centers are located in the south. Trade disruptions between the two centers resulted in increasing food prices and skyrocketing inflation.

The researchers will survey 200 smallholder farmers in northern Ghana. They will gauge farmer awareness of COVID-19, strategies to reduce the risk of rural food insecurity, and potential changes in future cropping plans due to price increases and trade disruptions.

Farmers could adapt to the high food prices by shifting production from staple crops like maize and rice to commercial crops like soybeans. While risk-averse farmers may prioritize immediate household needs by growing food crops, those more open to risk are likely to allocate land to commercial crops for higher profits. Their decision-making may also be influenced by information from local Extension personnel, which the researchers will explore. 

The study will provide data to understand the level of food system disruptions in Ghana, inform government and development organizations of farmer-implemented strategies to overcome the impact of COVID-19, and help support local markets and food value chains.

Funding: Soybean Innovation Lab ($13,000).

ACES Researchers:
Peter Goldsmith, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab
Edward Martey, CSIR-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute, Ghana

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Predicting how land management practices affect soil erosion

erosion researchers
Maria Chu and Jorge Guzman

Soil erosion can diminish soil fertility and contribute to pollution of waterways. Driven by a combination of natural processes and human actions, erosion can move soil particles bound with biological and chemical pollutants throughout watersheds. The effects are both immediate and long-ranging in time and space, and the processes are difficult to quantify and predict.

Researchers in the Watershed-Ecosystem Research Laboratory at Illinois are developing tools to more accurately estimate soil erosion under different scenarios. They are currently developing a web platform where agricultural producers and others can evaluate the effects of different land-management strategies on soil erosion. This approach will allow users to envision the potential impacts of various land management practices, such as tillage or “no-till,” on soil erosion at local (e.g., their farm) and regional (e.g., Mississippi River) scales over time.

To develop the tool, the researchers integrated satellite and ground-based data into complex models that estimate watershed-ecosystem dynamics in managed landscapes. The data-intensive project aims to create more accurate hydrologic and erosion models.

The web interface will make it possible to evaluate the effects of land-management practices on erosion over time and space, both at the local and regional scale. The goal is to provide information stakeholders can use to make management decisions.

The researchers are developing the tool with data from the Kaskaskia River Watershed in southern Illinois, which feeds into the Mississippi River, as well as a watershed in Oklahoma for comparison purposes. The long-term goal is to extend the project to a larger region in the Midwest and eventually to the entire United States.

Funding: USDA NIFA ($500,000).

ACES researchers:
Maria Chu, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and The Grainger College of Engineering
Jorge Guzman, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and The Grainger College of Engineering

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