Fostering climate-friendly sustainable farming through integration of biochar and cover crops in Texas and Florida

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2024: $399,220.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2027
Grant Recipients: Texas A&M University - Kingsville; University of Florida; Texas A&M University AgriLife - Corpus Christi
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Sanku Dattamudi
Texas A&M University - Kingsville
Dr. Mahendra Bhandari
Texas A&M AgriLife Research
Dr. Saoli Chanda
Florida International University
Dr. Yuncong Li
University of Florida
Dr. Greta Schuster
Texas A&M University - Kingsville (TAMUK)
Dr. Benjamin Turner
Texas A&M University-Kingsville and King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management
Xiaoying Li
University of Florida, Tropical Research and Education Center


  • Vegetables: peppers


  • Crop Production: cover crops

    Proposal abstract:

    This three-year project is a multi-state (Texas and Florida) and
    multi-university (Texas A&M University – Kingsville,
    University of Florida, Texas A&M AgriLife Research/extension
    center, and UF Extension Center – Immokalee) collaborative
    approach for fostering climate-friendly agricultural practices.
    Major agricultural soils in Texas (South Texas and the Lower Rio
    Grande Valley) and Florida (South and Central Florida) are low in
    organic matter content (less than 2%) and consequently encounter
    reduced crop yield, soil quality issues, nutrient loss, and
    eventually economic losses during production. We received several
    requests from vegetable growers of Texas and Florida to apply
    regenerative agricultural practices for production resiliency,
    climate friendly ecosystem, and improved soil health. Our initial
    survey indicates that about 67% growers in Texas and Florida are
    motivated to use or try sustainable farming (specifically biochar
    and cover crops) in their farms. Biochar, often called as super
    charcoal, are capable of increasing crop yield by providing
    nutrients in the soil, improving soil water retention capacity,
    promoting seed germination, increasing cation/anion exchange
    capacity of soil, and promoting soil biodiversity. Similarly,
    cover crops (CC) are capable to provide ecosystem services
    including addition of soil organic matter and other nutrients,
    improve soil structure, increase soil water retention, and more.
    Also, under EQIP program by NRCS, a CC mixture can provide
    $76/acre incentive to the growers. Application of cover crops and
    biochar in the field will improve soil nutrient efficiency and
    reduce major greenhouse gas emissions: a climate-friendly
    approach while improving production efficiency.

    We recognized that research works on CC and soil health analysis
    are well documented, however, the effect of sub-tropical CC in
    combination with biochar on crop yield and soil quality
    assessment is still limited. Specifically, we are producing
    biochar from invasive plant-feedstocks which is therefore
    expected to reduce competition of soil nutrients for main
    agricultural crops. We will grow sunn hemp (SH) and velvet bean
    (VB) as CC in bell pepper (Capsicum sp) field and the
    biochar will be produced from invasive plant-feedstocks that are
    abundant in Texas and Florida.

    A preliminary study on physicochemical properties of biochar made
    from invasive plant feedstocks indicates high cation exchange
    capacity (8 to 17 cmol/kg), organic matter contents (95 to 97%),
    and improve soil pH to near neutral (pH 7.3 to 7.8).

    On another note, this project will also encourage diversity by
    engaging more historically underserved farmers of TX and FL in
    sustainable farming. Texas has the largest number of Hispanic,
    Spanish, or Latino origin (HSL) growers in the United States. As
    of 2017, more than 41,000 agricultural growers in Texas are HSL
    which contribute about 37% of the total HSL in the US. Similarly,
    more than 30% Florida farmers are socially disadvantaged among
    which about 29% farmers are HSL.

    We expect the major outcomes of this project will be efficient
    vegetable production (increased yield due to addition of soil
    nutrients), reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, improved soil
    health (high CEC from biochar and organic matter addition from
    CC), and educational benefits to growers and students on
    sustainable farming systems.  

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project objectives

    This is a multi-state (Texas and Florida) and multi-agency
    coordinated research, extension, and educational project. A
    strong collaboration between university partners and vegetable
    industry stakeholders has been established to promote
    climate-friendly agricultural farming and improve overall
    sustainability during production. Experiences from growers, other
    stakeholders, and our advisory committee members in discussing
    the current problems and expectations were invaluable and we
    outlined our project objectives and hypotheses accordingly
    (support letters are attached). Overall, this project will
    integrate research and extension components through system-based,
    trans-disciplinary approach where optimum pepper yield will be
    obtained through application of cover crops and biochar in
    farmer’s field.

    A thorough literature analysis has been carried out and the
    objectives were carefully devised to avoid duplication of effort
    with similar activities by others.

    Specific objectives of this project are:

    1) To evaluate the individual and combined effects of
    high biomass producing cover crops (sunn hemp and velvet bean)
    and biochar for pepper (Capsicum sp; Variety: Red Knight)

    We will quantify yield and physiological parameters of pepper at
    different plant growth stages both at the University farm (Texas
    A&M University – Kingsville; TAMUK greenhouse and UF research
    station) and in field trials (collaborative farmer’s field). We
    hypothesize that the application of biochar and growing high
    biomass producing cover crops will improve soil fertility, pepper
    fruit quality, and increase overall crop production.

    2) To foster climate-friendly practices by analyzing
    the efficacy of cover crop and biochar treatments (individual and
    combined) in accumulating soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas

    Hypothesis 2A: Cover crop mixtures will have positive impact on
    soil carbon balance (net C accumulation) and reducing greenhouse
    gas (CO2, CH4, and N2O)
    emissions in the field compared to the plots have no cover crops.
    The extracellular exudates released by cover crop roots in the
    soil will improve overall soil health components (soil aggregate
    stability, soil bulk density, and water holding capacity).

    Hypothesis 2B: Biochar (from invasive feedstocks) in combination
    with cover crop treatments (biochar + cover crop) will provide
    higher organic matter, soil nutrients, improve soil structure
    than individual biochar and cover crop treatments. We also
    hypothesize that biochar application will reduce the emission of
    greenhouse gases compared to conventional farming system.

    3) To measure the economic benefits (using stochastic
    models) of cover crops and biochar on pepper

    We will run stochastic economic models to integrate inputs
    (seeds, fertilizer, labor etc.) and outputs (crop yield, price,
    market demand etc.) for assessing the economic benefits of cover
    crops and biochar in pepper productions. We realize that there
    are uncertainties with crop yields, costs, and market prices
    under both conventional and proposed sustainable farming
    approaches. The stochastic economic model will utilize a Monte
    Carlo approach to account for the above uncertainties and help
    assess incremental (additional) net profits and variability in

    We hypothesize that our proposed sustainable farming approach
    (biochar and cover crops) will generate higher profits as well as
    lower economic variability (risks) for growers than conventional
    farming practices.

    4) To develop and evaluate a remote sensing based
    expert system utilizing UAV technology for plant and soil health

    The research studies will be conducted in about five different
    field sites across South Florida. Geo-coordinates of each soil
    sampling point will be recorded using the Trimble GeoExplorer
    (Trimble Navigation Limited, CA, USA) global positioning system
    (GPS) receiver. All the soil samples will be collected soon after
    the satellite (Landsat and Sentinel) overpass. The results of
    this study will improve our knowledge on the soil nutrient
    dynamics which is critical to calculate nutrient inventory and to
    improve soil nutrient management through appropriate combination
    of Cover crop and biochar amendments.

    5) To provide educational benefits to the
    stakeholders and students (both Texas and Florida) on
    regenerative and sustainable farming system

    This project will provide experimental and experiential learning
    opportunities for agroecology undergraduate and graduate students
    in Texas and Florida. Series of training workshops and field days
    during this project will be able to properly disseminate the
    knowledge acquired through experiments. The newly acquired
    knowledge about cover crops and biochar integration will help the
    stakeholders for sustainable agriculture planning and management.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.