Hotter temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and drought-stressed crops are three factors farmers in the Midwest are becoming increasingly familiar with as climate change progresses. To combat these trends, farmers are turning to irrigation, which can be costly to install, draw upon limited freshwater resources, and may actually inhibit natural drought-protection assets hiding right under farmers’ feet.
An Indiana University team led by researchers affiliated with IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI) has been awarded $1.4 million from the National Science Foundation to study how farmers and the soil microbes on their farms respond to drought. The findings could help farmers identify efficient practices to adapt to a hotter climate.
By talking to farmers in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan and testing soil samples from their fields—both through greenhouse experiments and by studying soil microbes’ genetics—the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of what agricultural practices promote vibrant microbial communities and what farmers can do to withstand future droughts.
“We know that microbes can sometimes protect plants from drought stress, but we don’t know when or even how commonly that occurs,” said Jen Lau, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology. “By describing the microbial communities from all these different farms and measuring how much these microbes protect plants from drought stress, we can hopefully start to predict when these microbial communities are beneficial and what farmers can do to cultivate them.”
Lau, an ecologist, is leading the 5-year study along with IU sociologist and ERI Fellow Matt Houser, IU historian and ERI Fellow Elizabeth Grennan Browning, IU ecologist Jay Lennon and Michigan State colleagues Sarah Evans and Sandy Marquart-Pyatt.
For a long time, scientists focused on the negative effects of microbes, such as disease, but more recently researchers have come to recognize the beneficial roles microorganisms play for plants and animals. In past research conducted at Michigan State’s Kellogg Biological Station, Lau and Lennon found that microbes that experienced drought stress could protect plants from drought. If similar effects occur on farms, then diverse soil microbial communities might naturally promote drought tolerance in crops to help them survive drought.
Farmers, however, must contend with many variables when making decisions about the best way to manage their land. Practices like irrigation may provide the short-term boost needed to maintain crop yields under climate change even if it comes at the expense of future drought tolerance. To better understand how farmers navigate these decisions Houser will be recruiting and interviewing farmers that use irrigation or use practices such as cover crops to cultivate healthy soil for the study.
“After studying management practices and the microbial communities on these farms, we hope to be able to go back to the farmers and tell them what strategies will be the most efficient in the long term,” Houser said. “Then we plan on revisiting them later to see if they have adopted any of our recommendations. Whether farmers decide to take our advice or not—especially if they want to adopt more sustainable practices, but don’t feel they can—it will tell us a lot about what policies and interventions may be needed to prepare the agricultural industry for climate change in the short and long term.”
A third component of the project, led Browning, involves capturing the oral histories of farm families, with a focus on the families’ experiences of environmental change. The work will contribute to the final assessments of farmers’ resilience practices and inform a traveling exhibit on how farmers have responded to major environmental threats over multiple generations.
“I’m hopeful that the project’s history component will help farmers and the public reflect on past shifts in agricultural practices to meet the environmental challenges of the day,” said Browning. “The enormity of the climate change crisis can often prove overwhelming, but historical narratives offer a way to re-center the discussion and make clear the many ways that our communities are connected.”
By studying farmers’ and microbes’ response to climate change through ecological, sociological, and historical lenses, the researchers aim to gain a deeper level of understanding than could be obtained otherwise.
“One of the exciting things about this project is how interconnected the social and environmental aspects of the work are,” Houser said. “I can’t answer my questions without ecologists, and they can’t answer their questions without the input of sociologists and others.”
Lau and Houser struck upon the idea that would lead to the grant during an ERI social event in 2019. The project exemplifies the type of interdisciplinary environmental research that ERI’s founders envisioned when they launched the institute as part of IU’s Grand Challenges program in 2017.
“This is what interdisciplinary science is supposed to do,” Lau said. “It’s supposed to expand the way you think in general. It’s also supposed to change the way you see your own science. I think that’s really true in this case.”