Ron Morse was recognized for a lifetime achievement in improving soil and water quality

Photo of Dan Luebben (Carl Luebben’s son), Ron Morse with his award, and Eric Bendfeldt. Photo by Barbara Bowen.

Ron Morse, an Emeritus Associate Professor of the Horticulture Department at Virginia Tech, was awarded the 2016 Carl Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award which recognizes a lifetime achievement in improving soil health and water quality in Virginia. This award was presented to him at the 2016 Virginia Farm to Table Conference, hosted by Virginia Cooperative Extension and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Services. He was nominated by the 2015 awardee, Mark Schonbeck, who said “Dr. Morse has, through a combination of research, education, extension, and community outreach endeavors, made a very substantial contribution to soil health in vegetable production across the US.”

Morse’s focus on sustainable agriculture and conservation began in 1979, when he received an appeal for help from an Extension agent in mountainous Carroll County, with a photo showing a major highway blocked by soil washed onto the road from a cabbage field under conventional tillage.  Ron’s answer was, “Stop plowing.”

Beginning in 1980, when “no-till” was practiced mainly on a limited number of corn/soybean acres in the Midwest, Morse began researching, developing, demonstrating, teaching, and promoting no-till practices on vegetable crops. His successful demonstrations of cover crop-based no-till for pumpkins, squash, broccoli and other crucifers, tomato, potato, and other vegetables has led to adoption of these systems by both organic and conventional producers.

Ron Morse emphasizes that the use of high biomass cover crops in no-till systems is as equally fundamental as the elimination of tillage itself. He has developed Conservation Agriculture systems for both organic and conventional vegetable production that contribute to soil health and water quality in several ways. Key elements of these systems include:

  • No-till for conventional crops and reduced-till for organic crops, including the development and refinement of no-till equipment. These practices minimize soil disturbance and reduce erosion and leaching.
  • Permanent controlled-traffic raised beds to minimize compaction and improve soil health.
  • Farmscaping with native flowering plants to provide food and habitat for natural enemies of insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides and increasing biodiversity.
  • High biomass cover crops integrated into diverse crop rotations to reduce nitrogen fertilizer application, increase soil organic matter, reduce nutrient leaching, and provide a surface mulch that conserves soil moisture and suppresses weeds.
  • Fertigation with soluble organic and conventional fertilizers to match crop nutrient uptake and reduce leaching.
Photo of farmscaping system on Kentland Farm. Photo by Alex Hessler.

Ron Morse taught courses in vegetable crop production and plant nutrition while a professor in the Horticulture Department. Though he retired from the department in 2003, he remained active in research until 2015. In 2009, he served as an advisor for the development of the six-acre Dining Services Farm as a site for hands-on education for students in the Civic Agriculture and Food Systems minor (USDA-Higher Education Grant 2009-38411-19770).  The Dining Services Farm now hosts the Sustainable Agriculture Practicum, an experiential course in sustainable vegetable production in the Horticulture Department.  In 2015, The Dining Services Farm provided nearly 50,000 pounds of produce to dining centers on Virginia Tech’s campus.  Farm manager and Horticulture instructor Alex Hessler worked closely with Dr. Morse for several years.  “Ron’s tireless passion for refining no-till equipment and practices continues to inspire the next generation of farmers and agricultural researchers,” says Hessler.

Ron is currently in the process of writing a manual synthesizing the Conservation Agriculture system that he has developed.

Congratulations to Ron Morse, 2016 awardee of the Carl Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award.