During the growing season, the Plant Science Research and Education Facility serves as a base for many teaching, research and outreach efforts. The facility, more commonly known as the Research Farm, furnishes a spot for students who are receiving hands-on training in horticulture, supports faculty research projects and opens its gates for field days, demonstrations and seminars.
To facilitate the Farm’s many endeavors, a variety of crops are cultivated on 39 acres. “We grow everything but animals,” said Steve Olsen, the facility’s manager of farm services. The Farm provides a place for 12 plant science and landscape architecture (PSLA) and Extension researchers to study such topics as ornamental horticulture, biofuels, invasive species, super foods, integrated pest management and groundwater. Other faculty members who conduct research on the Farm are from natural resources and the environment and physics disciplines.
Diversity on the Farm
The Farm has features besides experimental plots. The oldest, continually operating (since 1888) National Weather Service cooperative weather station in Connecticut is there along with the five-acre Hicks-Burr teaching nursery. Located on ten adjacent acres is the largest witches’ broom collection of dwarf conifers in America. Farm structures include two greenhouses and two classrooms.
The range of activity was not this wide when faculty started doing agronomy research at the Farm in 1922. However, when other UConn agricultural facilities closed and consolidated at the Research Farm, the variety of projects increased. “I don’t know of another single university research farm in the Northeast that has the diversity that we have here,” Olsen said.
All this activity keeps Olsen and Lead Agricultural Workers Gregory Tormey and Geoffrey Vose busy. It is a team effort. Graduate students and summer student employees help with many of the field tasks, but some jobs require the specific skills of the Farm staff.
For example, there are over 100 machines to use and maintain. Some of the equipment is very specialized, like the mowers that researchers share for some of the turfgrass experiments. The machinery is able to mow the plots at heights of cut from 0.500 inches down to as low as 0.100 inches. Fine adjustments are in 0.005 increments. According to Olsen, other less-modern implements, such as a mid-1950s seeder still in use, are identical in design to new ones and still technology-appropriate.
Olsen, who was a mechanic before he went to college, said, “I consider it a very good day at the Farm if nothing breaks.” In order to have everything in the best running order before the season starts in late March, Olsen likes to stop the outside work by December 1.
Much of the equipment that the Farm owns, except for the retired horse-drawn implements, is important to the daily research effort. The full-time staff members use it for growing season tasks like tillage, planting, irrigation, fertilization, data collection and pest management. These field operations, according to Olsen, “keep the place open and running for faculty to use.”
Teaching, Research and Outreach Efforts
“This is the cutting edge of ag research where we are trying to solve problems for growers. It is an exciting place to work,” Olsen said. As examples, he cited research to preserve groundwater, manage invasive plants and investigate health benefits of the berries produced by aronia, an ornamental plant.
One project that Olsen considers relevant to current problems is a study of cellulosic crops done by PSLA Associate Professor Julia Kuzovkina. She wants to know if Connecticut’s yield of willows is large enough to make it a viable biofuel crop. “Our Farm has sufficient land and expertise to accommodate the establishment of extensive trials for biofuel production,” Kuzovkina said.
Another researcher, PSLA Assistant Extension Professor Ana Legrand, is using plots at the Farm to investigate the interaction between flowers and insect natural enemies, such as predators and parasitoids. She said, “The proximity of the Farm to UConn is a plus for my project because I have to make observations throughout the day during the growing season.” As part of the outreach component of her work, Legrand explains her findings to plant professionals and gardeners in workshops.
An additional outreach and teaching activity at the Farm is the biennial Turfgrass Field Day, which attracts over 200 professionals at all levels. Participants receive a guided tour of current research projects at the Farm and learn more about up-to-date turfgrass management options.
A mini museum in the main building points to PSLA’s progress. It contains the old Agronomy Farm sign for the facility, historical photos of successful faculty members and a clipping of the New York Times article about the Farm. There is evidence of plant science honors such as when former Associate Professor Ronald Parker won the All-America Selections awards, the agricultural equivalent of an Oscar.
However, there is still work to be done, and new solutions await discovery. When visitors see the sun shining on the high-tech equipment, enthusiastic young students and innovative research plots, they can envision the Farm poised for bright prospects. It seems that the Plant Science Research and Education Facility has a growing future.
by Patsy Evans