UK researcher to study climate-smart ag in the Mississippi River basin

wei ren
UK researcher Wei Ren will study the effects of no-till and cover crops at multiple locations along the Mississippi River Basin with her NSF Career award — photo by Matt Barton, UK agricultural communications.

A University of Kentucky researcher will study the effects of various sustainable agricultural practices along the Mississippi River Basin as part of a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award.

Wei Ren, assistant professor in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, will use ecosystem monitoring and computer modeling to compare the impacts of climate-smart-agriculture practices used in corn and soybean production under various climate and soil conditions.

The climate-smart-agricultural practices she will focus on are no-tillage and cover crops. She will use agroecosystem modeling and machine learning approaches to predict their short, medium and long-term effects on production and the environment.

The Mississippi River has the world’s third-largest drainage basin and one of the most agriculturally productive. It is home to more than 80% of the United States’ corn and soybean production and 92% of the country’s agricultural exports. While the area is extremely fertile, over the years, producers in some parts of the basin have faced environmental challenges, including soil erosion, nutrient pollution and aquatic acidification.

Ren’s research will help determine which climate-smart agricultural practices can help producers foster environmental stewardship and sustain large-scale agricultural production.

“The Mississippi River basin has diverse climate and soil conditions that may react differently to various agricultural practices,” said Ren, a faculty member in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “My goal is to show farmers and stakeholders which practices maintain or increase crop yields and protect soil health and water quality.”

She will collect and analyze field observations and remote-sensing data at multiple sites. Specifically, she will look at the effects each practice has on soil carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient leaching at diverse time and space scales.

In Kentucky, she will use data from the Blevins plots. Located at UK’s Spindletop Research Farm in Lexington, the Blevins plots have been in continuous no-till corn and cover crop production for more than 50 years.

NSF gives CAareer awards to young faculty members who have the potential to serve as leaders in research and education in their area of study. As part of the five-year award, Ren will receive nearly $510,000 for her research efforts.

“This award is a big honor for me,” Ren said. “It sets a solid foundation for my academic career that seeks to contribute to achieving sustainable agriculture under climate change.”

The University of Kentucky contributed this article.

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