Doctoral student Will Hazzard, who leads the SCOPE program zinnia team with Professor Charlie Brummer. (Trina Kleist / UC Davis)
Doctoral student Will Hazzard, who leads the SCOPE program zinnia team with Professor Charlie Brummer. (Trina Kleist / UC Davis)

Plant Sciences faculty win $5 million in three USDA grants

Sustainable orchards, regional pest control and organic agriculture education will advance with three grants awarded to faculty in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. The $5 million in funding for the projects comes through the United States Department of Agriculture.

“These three projects exemplify the excellent, forward-looking and innovative research that continues within the Department of Plant Sciences,” chair Gail Taylor said. “They address the global challenges around sustainable land use and future agriculture, better use of the earth’s resources for the benefit of all and training the next generation of plant breeding experts, who are keen to harness the power of organic agriculture and grow a world where we use fewer chemical inputs.”

Grazing sheep in orchards  

A team lead by Associate Professor Amalie Gaudin will study the agricultural and economic benefits of grazing livestock in orchards. The multi-institution project won a grant of $2 million over four years from USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.

The project will graze sheep on cover crops planted between rows of nut trees. Researchers will look at both the benefits, including greater sustainability, resilience and pest control, and the risks, such as the potential for bacteria in manure to contaminate crops.

The research was developed with and for organic growers, and it will take place at organic farms representing different crops and environmental conditions in California’s Central Valley. Researchers also plan to create a guide for organic farmers to bring grazing animals into their own orchards.

Gaudin hopes the project will remove some of the barriers farmers face in adopting practices to make their operations more profitable and environmentally sound.

Regional pest research and support

The Western Integrated Pest Management Center will provide growers with support and information about the latest research on controlling pests and disease in their crops. The center received a $1 million grant for the 2023-24 year as part of ongoing yearly funding, Kassim Al-Khatib, professor and center co-director said.

The Western IPM Center in Davis is one of four regional centers nationwide that offer hubs to study, experiment with and promote sustainable pest control practices. The aim is to spot regional problems and find solutions, Al-Khatib said.

The center supports anyone who needs help battling insects, weeds, diseases, invasive species and other organisms that affect cities, farms and wildlands. It connects scientists, farmers, industry representatives, regulators and others across 14 western states, granting money for experiments, hosting working groups to address emerging issues and offering symposia and training to discuss best practices. Funding comes through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Expanding organic education

The Student Collaborative Organic Plant Breeding Education, or SCOPE, program will use its three-year, $2-million grant to expand into new crops and new partnerships. The aim: exporting its educational model to other institutions.

The SCOPE program is overseen by Professor Charlie Brummer, who is also director of the Plant Breeding Center. SCOPE teaches students how to breed tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, dry beans, wheat and zinnias using organic methods.

This grant allows them to add spinach and celtuce – a type of lettuce popular in Asian cuisine. Field trials will take place at the Student Farm. At UC Santa Cruz, a plant breeding program modeled off SCOPE will be set up, and program cultivars will be tested in this new location that features different growing conditions.

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