Aug 4, 2020
Researchers aim to create ag systems in urbanizing landscapes

Agricultural systems in metropolitan regions and in adjacent, non-metro counties account for more than two-thirds of U.S. net farm income and 97% of net farm income in Pennsylvania.

But can food systems in these urbanized landscapes remain economically and environmentally sustainable in the face of development pressure and perceived disamenities associated with agriculture? A team led by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences researchers is almost a year into a five-year study aimed at providing answers to this question.

“Communities and consumers in urbanized landscapes value agriculture for locally produced foods, open space and scenery, 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 areas 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 began with the hypothesis 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 case study that is translatable 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 that goal by addressing two long-term objectives: to increase agricultural production and productivity, and to improve the efficient use of nutrients such as water, nitrogen and phosphorous.

The researchers are employing a variety of methods spanning different disciplines to address issues at multiple scales 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 which crops and livestock to produce. At the landscape level, they include zoning and other land use regulations, farmland preservation policies and urban development pressures.

Watershed-scale and regional issues include consumer demands and markets for value-added agricultural products, nutrient flows within the watershed, nutrient-trading and nutrient-credit- trading considerations, and environmental policies. Agricultural policies and worldwide market forces are national and global concerns that impact these agricultural systems.

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

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

Abler explained that the project team is working with stakeholders to research ways to increase productivity by expanding markets for local, organic and traceable food products in urbanized landscapes. Collaborative research also is addressing strategies for improving productivity and nutrient-use efficiency through a suite of nutrient management tools, models and analyses that will assist farmers, land use planners, agricultural and environmental policymakers, and others.

Also planned are workshops for businesses along the food supply chain and for policymakers; online undergraduate and graduate courses to disseminate project methods and findings; and Extension programs to create a community of practice around agriculture in urbanized landscapes.

“We expect that our stakeholder-led approach will lead to quick adoption of the project’s research outputs because they will address present-day needs and desired futures 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, distinguished professor of agricultural and environmental economics; Charles White, assistant professor of soil fertility and nutrient management; Edward Jaenicke, professor of agricultural economics; Matthew Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center; Anil Kumar Chaudhary, assistant professor of agricultural and extension education; 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 research team from Penn State also include Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Terry Harrison, professor of supply chain and information systems. Other collaborators are from the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Ohio State University and the Stroud Water Research Center.

Chuck Gill, Penn State University

A project led by Penn State researchers is aimed at ensuring the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the face of development pressures and other challenges of urbanization. Photo: USDA-NRCS

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