KAREN BARRYTo examine low-input farming systems that enhance mycorrhizal fungi for increased crop productivity - USA, Canada
I’m a lecturer and researcher in agriculture and I specialise in plant-fungal interactions – usually plant diseases but also beneficial fungi (they’re not all bad!). I live in the Derwent Valley with my family, including two kids, now 10 and 6. Life is usually a hectic balance between work (both my job and the usual housework), family life and a bit of exercise (running is my latest thing – it’s time efficient, you can get outside and don’t need any gear) but we all love coming home to our country house surrounded by farming activity over the fence. Although I love the hectic life surrounded by the family, one of the best things about my trip in 2013 was the “quiet time” in the evenings to read and think. I’m still using the ideas from that time as the main source of inspiration for new research.
The Churchill Fellowship funded me to travel to the USA and Canada for 4 weeks in June-July 2013 to explore low input farming systems and the cost:benefits of promoting mycorrhizal fungi. These are beneficial soil microbes that help plants grow when resources are scarce (e.g. water, nutrients). The potential to make more use of soil microbes and less use of expensive inputs has gained wide attention from farmers over the recent decades. The dogma is that many modern agricultural practices deplete these fungi, but I learnt that they are more resilient than we think. I gained so much from the fellowship as I visited researchers, farmers and biotechnology companies, including insights to the “real” information that you can only get by visiting people. The most encouraging visit I had was to a grass-roots biotechnology company who have sold mycorrhizal products to farmers for over 20 years and are now getting such good results (especially drought tolerance) that the big players in biotechnology are embracing these methods as part of their business models.
FELLOWSHIP CONCLUSIONS & OUTCOMES
Although it is only about 3 years since my fellowship, the knowledge I gained has led to two funded students research projects on mycorrhiza here in Tasmania. The current project is attempting to identify the key mycorrhizal fungi in Tasmania in native and managed landscapes, using powerful molecular methods. We currently have no confirmed species identified in the state, so this new data will be very valuable! This will be a great start to base future studies on – because the best way to use mycorrhizal fungi is to use the ones you have naturally in the soil. Since the fellowship I have also been able to further promote interest in soil biology, including with a guest spot on Gardening Australia with Tino Carnevale, which was great fun to film.