Monitoring and Predicting Ecosystem Functions in Agricultural Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: PDP State Program
Funds awarded in 2014: $44,444.00
Funds awarded in 2015: $44,444.00
Funds awarded in 2016: $44,417.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2017
Grant Recipient: The Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
State Coordinator:
Dr. Kristy Borrelli
The Pennsylvania State University


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: cover crops, nutrient management
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    The sustainability of agricultural systems depends upon the maintenance of ecosystem functions such as carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling, pest regulation, and weed suppression, and the sustainability of society as a whole depends upon the services provided by these functions, such as clean water and air, food production, and biodiversity (Foley et al., 2005).  Ecosystem functioning affects all sectors of plant-based agriculture as the ecological processes that regulate production and environmental outcomes transcend differences in farm size, commodity type, and geography.  Maintaining ecosystem functioning in agricultural systems is especially critical in Pennsylvania (PA) due to ongoing water quality concerns in the Chesapeake Bay, the development of Bt resistant corn rootworm in neighboring regions, the importance of pollinators in specialty crop production in PA, and the rising occurrence of herbicide resistant weeds in PA.  Maintenance of ecosystem functioning can reduce the need for synthetic and purchased production inputs, reduce environmental contaminants, and slow the spread of pesticide resistant organisms (Mortensen et al., 2012, Drinkwater and Snapp, 2007), thus increasing the sustainability of agricultural production.

    To maintain ecosystem functioning in agricultural systems, farmers and ag service providers must be knowledgeable about the processes, monitoring methods, and prediction tools relevant to each ecosystem function.  Farmers and ag service providers can then use information gained from monitoring and predicting ecosystem functions to inform management actions.

    Our needs assessment survey completed by 99 ag service providers revealed several patterns about the current knowledge of processes, monitoring and prediction methods, and management tactics related to ecosystem functions (summarized in Table 1, complete findings attached).  These findings inform our development of a training program that will focus on monitoring and prediction methods related to the ecosystem functions of C and N cycling, insect pest regulation, and pollination.


    Table 1.  Summary of knowledge level about processes, monitoring methods, and management tactics related to different ecosystem functions based on needs assessment survey of 99 extension educators and conservation practitioners.

    Ecosystem Function


    Monitoring Methods

    Management Tactics

    C cycling




    N cycling




    Pest regulation and pollination




    Performance targets from proposal:

    Twenty ag service providers offer training to farmers about monitoring and managing ecosystem functions or directly monitor ecosystem functioning on a client’s farm, reaching 1,000 farmers managing 10,000 acres of land.

    Twenty farmers monitor one or more ecosystem function on their farm and take actions to improve or maintain ecosystem functioning on 2,000 acres of land.

    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.