Friday, April 29, 2016

Got an Ag Problem? Call the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station

Sarah Hulick, a grad student in horticulture at Cornell, studies pumpkin plants with Steve Reiners.
From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:

Empire Farm & Dairy


When there are problems in the world of agriculture, there is only one place to go for help.

The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station is filled with scientists, researchers and professors who work for years to solve some of the most daunting problems faced by farmers and food processors. 

How about a pesky fruit fly from Asia that devastates berry crops?

What do you do with a nasty bug that transmits a virus to snap beans?

Just how do you grow organic beets?

How do you get fruits and vegetables pollinated when the honeybee population is waning?

“Everyone who works here has a passion for this place,” said Susan Brown, a long-time apple breeding scientist at the station and now its director. “There are many sites that do agricultural research, but what’s unique about the station is we crave and excel at interdisciplinary research.”

Those at the station prove this time and time again.

When there’s a problem to be solved, it doesn’t go to just one scientist. Usually a whole team with varying expertise will work on the issue.

For example, in 2001, when Steve Reiners, a vegetable expert, began looking at the devastation brought to snap beans by the cucumber mosaic virus, a group of horticulturists, entomologists, plant pathologists and plant breeders jumped in to work on the problem.

“Working together, we found the soybean aphid (an insect pest) was transmitting the virus,” he said. “There were questions we didn’t have answers to,” he said, so everyone put their heads together to find out how to help New York’s snap bean farmers.

Thomas Bjorkman, center, with buckwheat grown as a cover crop.
He said one of the short-term solutions was to control the soybean aphid with sprays. But since many farmers like to stay away from chemicals as much as possible, the scientists also looked at varieties of snap beans that may be resistant to the virus.

“My colleague Brian Nault was looking at patterns with the soybean aphid and found that they were picking up the virus in alfalfa fields. So then we were able to look at the varieties with greatest resistance to the virus,” Reiners said.

From there, the scientists found a snap bean variety called Huntington that had great yields when planted in New York and also had good resistance to the virus.

But farmers needed a long-term solution to the problem too. So the scientists began working on coming up with new varieties of snap beans that would be even more resistant to the soybean aphid and the virus.

“We used everybody’s expertise to solve it for the short term and long term,” Reiners said.

There’s never enough time

Sometimes, time is of the essence, like in the snap bean problem.

Farmers are having a problem right now and can’t wait years for a solution. (Sometimes research and testing for new varieties can take from five to 10 years).

But other times, there’s a problem that needs to be worked out slowly and steadily. Such is that with weeds and soil quality in vegetables.

Ag station scientist Thomas Björkman focuses part of his research on cover crops for vegetables. Björkman, who has been at the experiment station for more than 20 years, said cover crops are important because they can help improve soil quality and eliminate weeds.

“When herbicide development went way down, we had to have multiple approaches for controlling weeds,” he said.

Björkman began by looking at crops that are harvested in July, such as spring greens, spinach, peas or early green beans. The farmers wanted something they could do to their fields to keep them free of weeds and healthy so they could use those same fields in the fall to plant something else.

“So we thought about using buckwheat as an alternative,” he said. “It’s one of these things we know in principle that it works, but we had to put in the effort to know exactly how to do it.”

He said he looked at ground preparation and what is needed to make the buckwheat grow and keep out the weeds. Farmers throughout the state (especially in Western New York and the Hudson Valley) began using it about 10 years ago and it is working well. 

A Cornell University website post by Björkman states “classic uses include: ground cover after early vegetables, cover before planting strawberry beds, and bringing idle land into production.”

“When it turns white, the farmers mow it and prepare for fall planting,” he said. The buckwheat can be harvested or it can be put back into the soil as a grain manure — its complex carbohydrates from the roots help hold together soil aggregates and build the condition of tilled soil.

Way too much waste

There are times when farmers have problems not with growing their vegetables or fruits, but figuring out what to do with leftover waste.

A butternut squash farmer in Western New York sold his squash cut and prepared in bags at area grocery stores. His problem was what to do with all the leftover guts — the seeds and insides of the squash not used after processing.

Ag Experiment Station scientists at the Food Venture Center put the farmer in touch with Gregory Woodworth, who ran a cookie company and was looking for a healthier oil for his cookies.

Station director Brown said the parties worked together and came up with butternut squash seed oil that Woodworth now sells through his Stony Brook WholeHearted Foods company based in Geneva. The oil debuted in 2008 and sells in individual bottles or by the case.

According to the company’s website, the oil is high in unsaturated fat, particularly unrefined omega 6 fatty acid (linoleic acid) and a moderate amount of monounsaturated fat (oleic acid). The oil also has high amount of vitamins A and E, which is quite different from other oils.

Good broccoli grown in NY
George H.W. Bush
wouldn’t be happy


Broccoli is a cool-weather crop that grows best in areas that have moderate temperatures that stay about the same all the time.

Björkman said a lot of the broccoli in the country is grown in the Salinas, Calif. area, which is near the Pacific Ocean and maintains highs in the low 70s and lows in the 50s and 40s.

This is why broccoli does not grow well in New York state. Björkman said the plant — a member of the cabbage family — does not tolerate the high highs (can you say 90s) we can see in New York.

“It’s just too warm for the buds to develop,” Björkman said. “So we had to find out what it takes genetically to grow broccoli and now are breeding broccoli hybrids that are successful.”

The trials have been so promising that seed companies are investing “in the promise of Eastern broccoli.” 

This will be a boon for the area because of the Buy Local campaigns and people wanting to buy fresh food grown locally, instead of getting broccoli that has been shipped all the way from California.

“Our Eastern broccoli has a milder flavor, but it has the freshness and is locally grown,” Björkman said. To date, growers with Eden Valley Growers in Erie County and Upstate New York Growers and Packers Co-op in Oneida County are selling the broccoli as is Wegman stores.

But there is more work to be done on the broccoli.

“We are not done with the broccoli yet,” Björkman said. “While we have greatly imporved gybrids in the breeding programs, they still need to be commericialized. The companies are fully on board to do that, but it is a time consuming process. There’s probably five years of more work to be done.”

Björkman also said hybrids that work in the spring also need to be developed and more market development needs to be done. He hopes the “food hub trend is a solution to that problem, and we are using that model with broccoli as a high-volume part of what a food hub might offer.”

Fly, fly away, fly

Berry farmers were having a horrible time beginning in 2012 when the spotted wing drosophila (a type of fruit fly) made its way to New York state from Asia and California. This pest is unlike other fruit flies that normally lay eggs in rotting fruit — it lays its eggs in fresh fruit.

Reiners said farmers needed a way to keep the fly out of the berry fields — mostly blueberries and raspberries. First they urned to netting which covers susceptible fruit and keeps the fly out.

Gregory Loeb, a professor of entomology at the ag station, tried some of the netting at a blueberry farm in Stephentown, Rensselaer County, that was “pretty successful.” The problem was the farmer had an upfront cost for the netting and had to have supports for the netting.

While the netting is being used, Loeb said he and other scientists are looking for other ways to control the fly.

“Can we understand the chemical cues to find out where the (fly) accepts or rejects to lay its eggs,” Loeb said. “If we can do this, we can manipulate the behavior of the insect.”

He said scientists also are looking at developing “an attractive target” that would pull the fly away from the fruit and then kill it.

“It will take us a few years to get this to a management effect, but we’re making progress,” Loeb said.

Getting more pumpkins

Reiners said ag station scientists have been working with pumpkin growers to try to increase the yields of this popular fall veggie.

Some of the ideas they’ve been working on include spacing between pumpkin plants, starting the plants in a greenhouse and then transplanting them, using black plastic on top of the plants and working on a fertility program to increase the number of pumpkins. 

Love Beets

Scientists at the Ag Experiment Station today are looking at how beets could be grown in New York state organically.

Reiners said conventional beets have problems with diseases and weeds, but the scientists are trying to find out how to grow them organically to help a company called Love Beets, which is seeking nearly 2,000 acres of organically grown beets for its beet products and beet juices.

There are beet growers in the state, mostly near Batavia, but they grow conventionally. Reiners said if a method to grow beets organically can be found, New York growers could expand their markets and possibly grow more acres by teaming with Love Beets.

Food without bees

Honeybees have been having problems for more than a decade with various maladies, including Colony Collapse Disorder, in which whole colonies of bees would die off or just leave for no reason. Bee populations have been dying off and some beekeepers have lost large percentages of their colonies.

Without the bees, farmers are having difficulties getting their crops pollinated. So, in comes the scientists from the Ag Experiment station who are trying to create a type of zucchini that is seedless and needs no bees for pollination.

Also, the station scientists looked into bringing other types of bees to fields for pollination. they planted flowers around fields to attract other types of bees that would come to the flowers and then move among the flowering food crops, pollinating them so they would produce vegetables and fruits.

The apples of her eye

The two newest apple varieties in New York were developed after 10 years of research by Brown and the breeding program at the experiment station.

SnapDragon is characterized by its “monster crunch” and a spicy and sweet flavor. One of its parents is the Honeycrisp. RubyFrost is crisp and blends sweet and tart flavors.

Brown calls SnapDragon and the RubyFrost® her babies. The station has developed 66 varieties of apples, including the Empire, Macoun, Jonagold and its first — the Cortland, which turns 101 years old this year.

The study of food and drink

Christopher Gerling, extension associate in the food science department, says “anything you can think of happens here.”

“Here” is the Food Research Building at the Ag Experiment Station. In this building are laboratories that study taste, smell, texture and mouth feel of various foods and beverages.

Pam Raes, a technician in the Vinification & Brewing Laboratory, pours wine into the still for distillation into brandy.
Gerling said companies trying to come up with a new food or drink and people who want to see if they can take grandma’s sauce recipe and make it into a commercial success come to the labs to test their products. Station scientists in the viticulture area also will test how new varieties of grapes fare when made into wine or will see what two different types of grapes will make when put together for a wine.

They also look for different ways of making wine, beer and distilled spirits. One study took a bunch of all the same type of grape and then “we wanted to see what happens with different yeast or different fermentation,” he said.

“First they see if a certain type of grape grows well, but then, they have to see if it makes a good wine,” Gerling said. “We are always breeding to see if they make good wines.”

And it certainly isn’t party time when it comes down to testing these wines or beers or spirits.
“It’s not as fun as it sounds,” Gerling said.



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