Researchers aim to create thriving agricultural systems in urbanizing landscapes

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — Agricultural systems in metropolitan areas and adjacent non-metropolitan counties account for more than two-thirds of net farm income in the United States and 97 percent of net farm income in Pennsylvania.

But can food systems in these urbanized landscapes remain economically and ecologically sustainable in the face of development pressures and the perceived inconveniences associated with agriculture? A team led by researchers at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences began a five-year study nearly a year ago to provide answers to this question.

“Communities and consumers in urbanized landscapes value agriculture for locally produced food, open spaces and landscapes, recreational opportunities such as agritourism and wildlife habitats,” said project leader David Abler, professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics and demography. “But the sustainability of agriculture in these regions is threatened by increasing competition for land and water from urban growth and sprawl, and by water pollution, livestock odors, pests and dust from agricultural activities.”

Abler noted that the research team started with the assumption that economically sustainable value-added agriculture in urbanized settings can be achieved while enhancing ecosystem services.

“The overall goal is to make this hypothesis a reality within the next 25 years, using the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a transferable case study to other urbanized landscapes,” he said.

Supported by a nearly $9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the team is pursuing this goal by tackling two long-term goals: increase agricultural production and productivity and improve the efficient use of nutrients such as water, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Researchers employ a variety of methods spanning different disciplines to address the multiscale issues that influence the sustainability of agricultural systems in urbanized landscapes. At the field and farm scale, these issues include nutrient management practices and technologies and choices of crops and livestock to produce. At the landscape level, they include zoning and other land use regulations, farmland preservation policies, and urban development pressures.

Regional and watershed-scale issues include consumer demands and markets for value-added agricultural products, nutrient flows in the watershed, nutrient exchange considerations and nutrient credit trading; and environmental policies. Agricultural policies and global market forces are national and global concerns that impact these farming systems.

As part of the project, researchers engage with stakeholders in a process of shared discovery and co-learning designed to envision the desired 25-year future for these agricultural systems. This includes scenario-building exercises to identify how agriculture in urbanized areas needs to evolve to achieve these futures and what technologies, markets and public policies could help facilitate this evolution.

“Shared discovery is a collaborative process for researchers and stakeholders to explore the research design, findings, and decision support tools developed from the collective effort,” Abler said. “This process provides opportunities for engagement and communication between researchers, external collaborators and stakeholders, treating everyone as equal partners. These communications help guide the course of research during a project and directly link scientific research to solutions to real-world problems.

Abler explained that the project team is working with stakeholders to seek ways to increase productivity by expanding markets for local, organic and traceable food products in urbanized landscapes. The collaborative research also addresses strategies to improve productivity and nutrient use efficiency through a suite of nutrient management tools, models and analyzes that will help farmers, nutrient use planners land, agricultural and environmental decision-makers, etc.

Workshops are also planned for businesses along the food supply chain and for policy makers; online undergraduate and graduate courses to disseminate project methods and results; and extension programs to create a community of practice around agriculture in urbanized landscapes.

“We expect our stakeholder-led approach to lead to rapid uptake of the project’s research findings, as they will address current needs and desired future needs identified by stakeholders,” Abler said.

Also participating in the project from the College of Agricultural Sciences are Jason Kaye, professor of soil biogeochemistry; James Shortle, eminent professor of agricultural and environmental economics; Charles White, assistant professor of soil fertility and nutrient management; Edward Jaenicke, professor of agricultural economics; Matthieu Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center; Anil Kumar Chaudhary, assistant professor of agricultural education and extension; Cibin Raj, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering; Yizao Liu, assistant professor of agricultural economics; and Douglas Wrenn, assistant professor of environmental and resource economics.

Members of the Penn State research team also include Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Terry Harrison, professor of supply chain and information systems. Other collaborators come from the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Ohio State University and the Stroud Water Research Center.

Lana T. Arthur