New England Funding Program Combines Resources for Agricultural Research

Assessing the potential for emergence of new cropland weeds in northern New England as a result of climate change is the focus of the first study to be supported by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

The program is a partnership of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station at the University of Maine, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire, and the Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Vermont. The goal of the program is to mobilize coordinated research on high-priority needs for the region.

The program awards a two-year seed grant to regional research teams through an annual competition, with priority given to teams that have the potential to serve northern New England beyond the proposed study.

The program’s initial priority area focuses on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change in relation to agriculture.

“One of the reasons we chose to encourage more research related to climate change is that is has the potential to impact almost every element of agriculture,” Frederick Servello, associate director of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, says. “Whether it’s crops or livestock or pest problems or disease problems, all have a potential to be affected by changes in climate.”

Servello, who is also the associate dean for research in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture and a wildlife ecology professor at UMaine, clarifies that the program’s intent is less about studying climate and more about understanding the effects of climate change, such as changing temperature and precipitation, on current agricultural practices and determining how to take advantage of those changes to improve agriculture in the future.

The proposed research may address specific agricultural issues, needs or opportunities within the context of climate change and variability or address the topic more broadly. The research must address issues or needs important to all three participating states and must be more effective and efficient conducted as a regional project than it would be as independent state projects.

Eric Gallandt, an associate professor of weed ecology and management at the University of Maine, is one of five co-principal investigators of the cropland weeds study along with researchers from UNH and UVM.

The project, which runs from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2015, aims to assess the potential for and prediction of range expansion in a variety of common and rare weed species as a consequence of climate change and to develop strategies to reduce effects on growers.

The group predicts ongoing environmental changes will make new habitats suitable for both native and invasive weeds in northern New England, creating more problems for weed management and potentially added costs to growers.

“Knowledge of weed biology and ecology is increasingly important to guide management,” Gallandt says. “Predicting tomorrow’s weed communities, and knowledge of the genetic variability in existing weed species will allow us to begin working on management strategies and educational programs that will help northern New England farmers adapt to changing weed problems.”

The goal of the project is to establish a knowledge base for planning responses to a variety of possible changes in weed pressures and effects on agriculture in the region. Researchers will collect this data by defining the current distributions of cropland weed species in the area and the environmental characteristics of each species’ suitable habitat.

The project also aims to integrate the research of weed scientists at all three universities, setting the stage for follow-up projects among the institutions that would have a greater chance of attracting funding from other sources.

Seed bank germination studies conducted by Gallandt in 2010 determined the principal cropland weeds for Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The results of his study helped lay the foundation of the cropland weeds project.

The group believes although their initial focus is on weeds, the idea of assessing agriculturally relevant species and genetic diversity in relation to habitat suitability and environmental change could also be applied to study insects and other pests, disease organisms and other biological factors related to agriculture.

“The NNE Collaborative Research Funding Program allowed us to initiate field, greenhouse and laboratory research that will characterize the existing weed flora across northern New England and develop essential proof-of-concept data sets that will allow our research team to compete for larger external grants to expand our efforts,” Gallandt says. “This year we sampled weed communities on 30 Maine farms and genetic analysis of selected species is underway at the sequencing lab at the University of New Hampshire’s Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies.”

Servello said the cropland weed study was chosen as the first project to be funded by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program because of the important results to come from the two-year study as well as its potential as a multiyear effort.

“What we saw was a dynamic team, a first-class proposal and an important question for all three states,” Servello says.

Over the past several years, the experiment station directors have been discussing ways to best work together to address common research needs, according to Servello.

The directors heard about a similar collaborative program at a meeting in another region of the country in 2012 and immediately began organizing to initiate the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

“We’re three universities in three neighboring states with a lot of similarities,” Servello says. “We’re in the same general region from an agricultural perspective, we have different skill sets at each university and different capabilities to address research problems. The thought was we could work together in a regionally coordinated way to be more effective.”

Servello says the program is the first of many discussions on ways the northern New England experiment stations can continue to work together.

“At first inclination you might think reducing duplicative effort between states is the big advantage here,” Servello says. “I think, what’s most important is bringing together the skill sets we have that can complement and reinforce each other into more effective teams to reach answers to these questions more quickly and effectively.”

Applications for the program’s 2014 seed grant are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is Feb. 6, 2014, and the winning research team will be announced Feb. 27, 2014.

The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station is UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture’s center for applied and basic research in agriculture and food sciences, forestry and wood products, fisheries and aquaculture, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and rural economic development.

The station’s programs strive to enhance the profitability and sustainability of Maine’s natural resource-based industries, protect Maine’s environment, and improve the health of its citizens.