Compost Could Save (Plant) Lives

Karen Adler's picture

Each year organic farmers lose time and money when crops are destroyed by diseases caused by soil-borne pathogens that live on the surfaces of seeds. Many of the fumigants and chemically treated seeds that are used in conventional agriculture to control these pathogens can be harmful to our health and the health of the environment. Organic farmers have fewer and often less effective options. Enter the humble but mighty soil amendment, compost, which harbors billions of secret (microbial) weapons against plant disease. New research funded by OFRF is exploring a promising application to harness these weapons to produce a new tool for disease prevention for organic farmers.

Compost, that all-important ally in organic agriculture, is heralded for its ability to build and maintain healthy soil—the basis for producing healthy plants. Compost and vermicompost increase organic matter, nutrients, and microbial biomass in the soil, and boosts processes such as nutrient cycling. These amendments are also used as organic alternatives to synthetic disease control methods due to their ability to control plant pathogens, but their mixed effectiveness in both laboratory and field applications has stifled the widespread adoption of bio-control materials for organic agriculture. Previous studies have confirmed consistent disease suppression using both solid and liquid forms of compost, and recent research has revealed that microbes in the compost—specifically a subset of microbes that colonize the seed coat—are the secret weapons responsible for suppressing disease.

Eric Carr, compost production specialist at the renowned Rodale Institute, along with a team of collaborators, has embarked on an OFRF-funded research project, Deploying microbes as a seed treatment for protection against soil-borne plant pathogens, to address the lack of effective biocontrol methods for disease prevention in organic agriculture. Carr explained that the research will focus on the promising approach of freeze-drying microbial extracts from compost and vermicompost to a powder form that will be applied directly onto to the seed surface, where it best protects the seeds. “This will allow us to explore new avenues using compost science and utilization to provide a novel tool for disease prevention for organic farmers,” he said.

If successful, this project could eventually lead to production of a new seed treatment for organic farmers to protect against pathogens.

 “The search for better tools to control plant diseases is a vital one and we are excited to fund this study by the Rodale Institute, one of our long-term partners in organic research,” said Brise Tencer, OFRF’s Executive Director. “We are glad to be supporting this unique approach to disease management, and we look forward to sharing the progress and results.”

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Meet the research team

Eric Carr, Principle Investigator for this project, is joined by Dr. Alan Taylor, Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, and Dr. Eric Nelson, Professor of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University, who will provide research support. Also on board are Jeff Moyer, Farm Director at Rodale Institute, and Dr. Gladis Zinati, Interim Director of Research at Rodale Institute. Greenhouse and field trials will be conducted at Rodale Institute, a certified organic farm.

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