New MSU research projects supported by sustainable agriculture funds

The Sustainable Michigan Fund will back research from Ilce Medina Meza, an assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, and collaborators from MSU and Iowa State University, who will investigate how nanotechnology and the antimicrobial properties of grape pomace can be used to thwart the development of sour rot, a poorly understood disease of wine grapes.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Two new research projects led by Michigan State University scientists will be supported by two sustainable agriculture funds, the Douglas and Maria Bayer New Initiatives Fund for Sustainable Agriculture and the Sustainable Michigan Fund.

The Bayer Fund is supporting James DeDecker, director of the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, along with colleagues from Northern Michigan University and Full Plate Farm — a local vegetable farm in the U.P. — who will explore reduced tillage methods in organic vegetables and how they might positively affect soil health and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable Michigan Fund will back research from Ilce Medina Meza, an assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, and collaborators from MSU and Iowa State University, who will investigate how nanotechnology and the antimicrobial properties of grape pomace can be used to thwart the development of sour rot, a poorly understood disease of wine grapes.
The Bayer Fund was established in 2015 with a $1 million pledge from MSU alumni Doug and Maria Bayer. Administration of the fund is provided by MSU AgBioResearch. The Sustainable Michigan Fund is a College of Agriculture and Natural Resources-supported grant program that helps address emerging sustainability and environmental issues in Michigan.
This seed funding — roughly $50,000 per project over two years — is intended to promote collaborative research projects in sustainable agriculture and food systems that bring researchers together from MSU and outside of the university, with the ultimate goal of landing larger external grants.
"These two new projects represent tremendous opportunities for partnerships that will advance our agricultural industries," said George Smith, director of MSU AgBioResearch. "Agriculture faces a multitude of short- and long-term threats, including emerging pests and diseases, soil health issues, and questions about water use and availability. The projects will work to address some of these challenges in key Michigan agricultural industries."
Reduced tillage in organic vegetable crops
Organic vegetable growers in the U.P. and across the country often rely on tillage for soil preparation and weed control. DeDecker said this practice can degrade soil health and contribute to climate change, as tillage damages soil structure, promotes erosion and releases greenhouse gasses.
Current tillage reduction techniques available to organic farmers include rolling and crimping of cover crops; zone tillage, in which a narrow band is tilled where planting occurs leaving soil between rows undisturbed; and occultation, which involves using dark-colored tarps to kill weeds and prepare beds.
DeDecker noted there is limited research-based information available to help farmers successfully implement these approaches. MSU researchers will work with partners at Northern Michigan University and Full Plate Farm to assess how variations of these practices affect soil health and fertility, weed management, greenhouse gas emissions, extreme weather resilience and vegetable crop production.
"We are very happy to partner with the Bayer Fund to identify successful strategies for organic growers to reduce tillage and capture all the potential economic and environmental benefits of doing so, while producing bountiful vegetable crops," DeDecker said. "Working with researchers at Northern Michigan University and local growers like Full Plate Farm will help ensure our work is relevant to U.P. stakeholders and the wider organic industry."
Nanotechnology and sour rot
Like all farmers, Michigan wine grape growers face a number of pest and disease challenges. Sour rot has proven to be one of the more destructive in recent years, especially in light of a changing climate.
Cool and humid conditions at harvest time encourage disease development, turning both red and white grape varieties a brown color. The fruit eventually softens and drips fermented pulp onto other grapes in the cluster, spreading the disease's effects.
Medina Meza said commercial fungicides are the current treatment for sour rot, but researchers have identified grape pomace — the seeds, skins and stems that remain after processing — as a sustainable source of antimicrobial properties and potential fungicide alternative.
Medina Meza and Paolo Sabbatini, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, will partner with researchers from Iowa State University. The team will use nanotechnology to develop carriers of grape pomace antimicrobial compounds and evaluate their controlled release and performance in grapevines.
"We truly appreciate the support from the Sustainable Michigan Fund," Medina Meza said. "Sour rot is a significant problem for wine growers in Michigan and beyond. There is an urgent need to find sustainable solutions, and this funding will help us do that."
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Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientists discover dynamic solutions for food systems and the environment. More than 300 MSU faculty conduct leading-edge research on a variety of topics, from health and climate to agriculture and natural resources. Originally formed in 1888 as the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, MSU AgBioResearch oversees numerous on-campus research facilities, as well as 15 outlying centers throughout Michigan. To learn more, visit agbioresearch.msu.edu.

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