Funding the Future: The Forever Green Initiative

July 20, 2015

A spring drive through Minnesota finds travelers looking at barren dirt fields over rolling hills. Come October, all that remains of the lush summer greenery is broken brown cornstalks and burning wheat fields. In the future that image could change. The Forever Green Initiative aims to make the state green from snowmelt to snowfall through funding a collective of researchers and graduate student working in sustainable agriculture.

Having bare soil over much of the state has a huge impact on Minnesota’s ecology. Spring and fall rains lead to excessive runoff, which erodes the topsoil and brings nutrients and chemicals out of fields and into rivers and lakes. The vision of Forever Green, led by Don Wyse in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, is to support research on cover crops and perennial plants to keep fields green even when there isn’t a cash crop growing. An important key to the projects being chosen each year is their economic viability and what benefits they offer the agronomic systems already in place.

Dozens of University researchers have programs that fit under Forever Green’s mission, but traditionally they competed against one another for limited funding. United under Forever Green they have more power. “Instead of competing for the same grants, we’re working to increase the amount of funding we all get. There’s collaboration and support of each other,” said Michelle Dobbratz (M.S. Applied Plant Sciences). In 2013, Wyse requested $14 million over 10 years from the Minnesota state legislature. Much of this money would help to support graduate and undergraduate students working on projects that align with the initiative’s mission, as workforce development is an important aspect of Forever Green.

For the graduate students in Horticultural Science, being part of Forever Green offers more than just funding. Often graduate students can become somewhat isolated within their department, but having a common goal allows students to get to know veterans in their field that they may not have collaborated with otherwise. “If I hadn’t started in Forever Green, I wouldn’t have known the history behind it,” Peyton Ginakes (Ph.D. Applied Plant Sciences) noted when talking about her work on the soil effects of zone tillage practices with kura clover. “And I wouldn’t know that this research has been going on for decades in agronomy.” Talking with others working in their field has helped Forever Green students see how their work fits into the bigger picture.

Being part of Forever Green also gives students a sense of camaraderie amongst each other that they might have otherwise lacked. A student group called Take Cover stemmed from Forever Green, comprised of graduate students across departments researching cover crops. Together they’ve applied for grants and have worked together to increase the visibility of cover crop research to the public.

This year Dobbratz and Molly Kreiser (Ph.D. Plant Biological Sciences) were invited to talk about their projects at the Minnesota state legislature. “We told them about what we were doing and why it’s important,” explained Kreiser. “That way they could see why it deserves funding.” For the students it was a unique chance to meet politicians from both sides of the aisle and discover that Minnesota representatives cared about the environmental impacts as well. Their testimonies were successful; recently $1 million was appropriated in the Omnibus Legacy Bill for the Forever Green Initiative. With this support, and hopefully more in the years to come, Forever Green will transform the landscape of Minnesota and fund the researchers of the future.