URI professor helping with local food systems and sustainable agriculture

Brown_BigThinker1Dr. Rebecca Brown in the Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology at the University of Rhode Island is using plant sciences to improve Rhode Island’s climate resiliency. Specializing in vegetable production and turfgrass management, Brown is helping to use native grasses along roadsides, and working with local farmers to improve sustainability and crop yields.

Roadside vegetation is important to prevent soil erosion and to filter road pollution from our waterways. Unfortunately, Rhode Island roadside vegetation has a history of not growing well. To fix this problem, Dr. Brown created plots on state roadside areas as part of a research project funded by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. Brown’s research showed that planting native, more salt-tolerant grasses and adding organic material to roadside soil, develops healthier, more resilient roadside plantings.  The difference is so noticeable, that by using this technique in 2007, the new vegetation could be seen from Google Earth.

Brown also helps local farmers improve their vegetable production by studying cover crops- crops planted to improve soil quality, suppress weed growth, and prevent erosion.  With a limited supply of farmland in the state, maintaining and protecting soil quality is important for future food security.  To achieve the New England Food Vision of growing 50% of New England’s food within the region by 2060, soil health will need to be protected.

Brown is also a part of the URI Cooperative Extension Program where she demonstrates production methods to commercial growers, and educates the public and professionals on environmentally sustainable vegetation management.  She has reestablished the Rhode Island vegetable food agriculture extension program to provide services to farmers and help them increase their crop yields. These efforts are helping to boost the Rhode Island food movement and to increase the number of farms and farmer markets in the state.

“I love working with plants,” said Brown.  “There are just so many issues that need solving.”

As a professor at URI, Brown takes her research into the classroom by incorporating her work into what she calls “living labs.”  She also takes some students into the real world, hiring them over the summer as Coastal & Environmental Research Fellows.

In the future, Brown hopes to continue her work in strengthening Rhode Island’s food systems, and applying environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient solutions to local problems.