Demand for locally grown fruit and vegetables continues to increase in Iowa and that trend has attracted many new growers in recent years. Ajay Nair, vegetable production specialist with Iowa State University Extension, is sharing information to help these growers adopt sustainable production practices and improve their bottom line and the environment.
Nair's new Sustainable Vegetable Production website features publications, videos and other grower resources highlighting his research results over the past two years. Nair has explored the use of soil amendments such as compost and biochar, various ways to extend the growing season including high tunnels and colored plastic mulch, cover cropping systems and transplant production.
"I see an increasing number of growers who are interested in practices that will make their production systems resilient, strong and ecologically sound," says Nair. "But knowing what will work best in Iowa, given our climate, soils and growing season, is critical. This research can create opportunities for growers to lower their input costs, improve crop and soil health and influence cropping system efficiency."
Using sustainable growing practices appeals to consumers of produce
Nair's program emphasizes strategies that enhance vegetable production and cropping system sustainability by building soil organic matter and improving soil quality. His broad research topics include transplant production, season extension, cover cropping, plasticulture, biochar, soil biology, nutrient management and food quality aspects. His research in the ISU Department of Horticulture is conducted in partnership with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
One project for beginning growers looked at the ease of producing radishes in a greenhouse or high tunnel. Another project considered strategies for producing sweet potatoes, popular vegetables that have been grown with limited success in Iowa due to the need for a long, frost-free growing season.
Currently, Nair works with a team of graduate and undergraduate students to conduct projects at several Iowa State research farms and on private property of farmer-cooperators. He also works with the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. He teaches an upper level horticulture class and shares research his results in publications, videos and at various field days and demonstrations.