The Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was recently awarded nearly $750,000 in funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and test new conservation technologies to improve the health of two of agriculture’s most valuable resources – soil and water.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grants Program is funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and is set up so grantees can work with producers to test and develop new conservation technologies.

Zach Easton, assistant professor of biological systems engineering and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, serves as the principal investigator on a federal grant that seeks to improve understanding and management of drainage and ditch systems. The grant totals $748,648 and is in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University, the University of Delaware, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

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The project will seek to control nutrient loss using comprehensive drainage and ditch management systems that trap sediment and nutrients from farmland and understand how nutrients get from agricultural fields to water bodies.

“Our first priority is ensuring that nutrients stay in the field, which is how this research can help producers,” Easton said. “Secondly, the drainage management systems we develop can help address production and water-quality concerns.”

Easton has conducted similar work on a smaller project to curb nitrogen and phosphorous run-off in the Chesapeake using a bioreactor he developed to filter out pollution.

At the state level, Virginia Tech received several grants including one from the Healthy Farms from the Soil Up: Finding Common Ground Program. Eric Bendfeldt, community viability Extension specialist, is the principal investigator on the grant, which was one of several awarded to Virginia Tech.

“Soil is a foundational resource so it has to be conserved,” said Bendfeldt. “We’ve recently seen a pretty dramatic increase of acreage going into vegetable production." 

One question that the funds will allow Bendfeldt to answer is how to prevent soil loss in those areas as well as other agricultural fields, he said.

More and more research is going into areas that seek to understand the health of soils and how important it is to maintain a diverse microbiology in the soil.

“All of these grants allow Virginia Tech to leverage our ability to bring additional dollars into the state while helping to educate farmers on sustainability practices,” said Bendfeldt.



Written by Amy Loeffler.
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