Virginia Tech scientist wins grant to study microbial helpers in high-density orchards
By JANE W. GRAHAM
BLACKSBURG, Va. (Nov. 14, 2017) — A Virginia Tech scientist is working to help orchardists find better ways to use the resources available to them in the soils in high-density orchards.
Dr. Mark A. Williams received one of the 10 agriculture-related block grants to help fund their research in specialty crops that Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Oct. 18.
In his office in Latham Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, Williams explained what he is doing in the project titled Alternative Fertilizer Recommendations that Support Helper Soil Microbial Communities in High-Density Apple Orchards.
Microbial Ecology of the Root-Zone and Soil Microbial are his main areas of study.
“My research is focused on understanding how microbial communities assemble and function in soil ecosystems and root-zone habitats,” he said.
Williams likened the work microbes in the soil for plants to what probiotics do in the human gut.
He said at least 80 percent of plants associate with fungi that attaches to their roots, in effect extending the root system and helping the plant, in this particular case dwarf apple trees supported on trellises, capture more resources from the soil.
These nutrients include phosphorous, nitrogen and water.
“They basically capture more resources; resources they are not able to obtain otherwise.” he said of what the fungi give to the plants.
He said the plants give the fungi or microbes carbon for energy in return.
Williams’ research is being conducted at three high-density orchards — two in Virginia and one in Maryland — to see what works in different areas.
He explained that the first goal of the project is to see what management practices are in place and how they are affecting the microbes and the interactions going on in the between plants, soil and fungi.
The project seeks to learn if fertilizer applications can be reduced, how to make use of waste materials and how to cut costs.
Three years ago, Williams added organic compost amendments to the test trees that at the time were newly planted young stock.
He has now collected soil and root material from the sites and is ready to look at them and see what has happened; if the nutrients were there and if so, how they were used.
“The hard part is extracting all the DNA’” he said.
He will be looking at the material and identifying how the plants and fungi are interacting or learning whether or not the fungi is even in the plots.
A goal is to see if using these alternative fertilizering methods is a start toward more sustainable growing conditions.
“The long term hope would be to procure a sustainable system to allow the fungus and plant to fuse,” Williams said.
He is a firm believer that a healthy plant is a plant with a healthy, good root system.
He praised the nation’s farmers for being more sophisticated in their understanding.
“They care,” he said.
“Nature is our guide to this,” he said. “We don’t know enough about it. The way we have done our agriculture has been very good to feed the world. We know we can do better.”
The block grants from the USDA totaled $481,410.50 and averaged $48,000 per grant for Virginia.
They are intended to promote and enhance the competitiveness of the state’s specialty crops and create more economic development opportunities.
Additional specialty crops including broccoli and other brassicas, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, honey, melons, strawberries and more will benefit from the grants.
Several projects will help produce farmers comply with new federal and state laws ensuring produce safety.
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