The SOAR Partnership is led by UT-Pan American (UTPA) and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), with funding support from the Organic Transitions Program of USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture.
SOAR Leaders

Welcome! the first issue of our newsletter. The SOAR project has had an amazing first year that included the launching of a new educational program at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), research on organic weed and pest control, cover crops, and four new certified organic facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. Growers, researchers, and students are working together to solve problems faced by organic and transitioning farms in South Texas, while raising awareness of the ecological benefits of organic farming.
-Alex Racelis and Mike Morris, Co-Directors

New Faces


Savannah Rugg earned her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies at University of California-Santa Cruz, and has started working towards a Master's degree in Agroecology at UTPA. Savannah's research will focus on cover crops, those grown to protect and enrich the soil instead of being harvested and sold. She will be looking at the "multifunctionality" of cover crops: their ability to suppress weeds, cycle nutrients, and attract native beneficial insects. Savannah says, "I truly enjoy working for the SOAR project and think that it serves as a great model for sustainable agriculture research."

Justin Justin Duncan joined NCAT's office in San Antonio in November. He earned a bachelor's degree in Agronomy at Prairie View A&M University and a Master's degree in Plant Breeding at Texas A&M. Justin's graduate work on cotton mutation convinced him that there had to be a better way to do things than dumping synthetic chemicals onto the fields. An experienced farmer and consultant, he has spent years "figuring out the nuts and bolts of successful organic farming in the humid South, concentrating on sweet potatoes, strawberries, niche market ethnic crops, and drought mitigation techniques." We are thrilled to have Justin on the SOAR team.

Soaring Away


Biology major Heather Hernandez and Environmental Studies major Ricardo "Rico" Marez graduated in December. Heather and Rico were the first UTPA students chosen to participate in the SOAR project, and both were awarded scholarships under UTPA's University Research Initiative.

Heather identified over 500 arthropod specimens, improving our understanding of insect populations and pest pressure in South Texas. She was awarded travel funds to attend the 2014 Latinos in Agriculture conference in the Dallas area. Heather plans to continue her research on integrated pest management in grad school.


Rico investigated the role of companion plants and tomato heirloom variety on whitefly abundance and natural enemy diversity. Some of his research findings were presented at the 2014 Meeting of the Entomological Society America. He has accepted a position with the United States Department of Agriculture, where he will be putting his insect identification skills to work.

We appreciate Heather and Rico's good work and wish them the very best.



Cover Crops at Yahweh Farm

In early summer 2014, Saul Padilla planted Sudangrass, Lablab, SunnHemp, and mixtures of these plants in a two-acre block at Yahweh Farm, then tilled them into the soil in late summer. Although heavy September rainfall prevented us from getting the exact follow-up measurements of soil fertility and weed density that we would have liked, the experiment was very successful in evaluating plant varieties and demonstrating conclusively that summer cover crops can be successful in the Rio Grande Valley.


And Cover Crops at Terra Preta Farm

In an effort to find winter cover crops offering the greatest benefit to farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, Savannah Rugg is currently evaluating Tillage Radish, Winter Cereal Rye, and a mixture of the two. In the summer, Savannah will plant heat-tolerant crops such as SunnHemp, Velvet Bean, and Sorghum/Sudan Grass, measuring impacts on soil macronutrients, organic matter, insect diversity, and weed suppression.

Organic Sign