Extension educator putting fruit research into practice

Mary Concklin
Growers recognized Mary Concklin’s “outstanding service to the Connecticut fruit industry” when they gave her the Connecticut Pomological Society Award of Merit. (Kevin Noonan/CAHNR photo)

“Research is pointless unless you can convey the results to people who can use it. They go hand-in-hand.” This quote from Visiting Associate Extension Educator Mary Concklin reveals her desire to combine science with education as she works with fruit and those who grow it.

Since 2012, Concklin, who is now in a 100 percent grant funded position, has been doing research and “getting the word out” through on-farm demonstrations, grower conferences and one-on-one training. Her primary audience is in Connecticut.

Controlling insect pests with IPM

One of Concklin’s recent research projects involved finding a control for spotted wing drosophila (SWD), a relatively new invasive insect pest that lays its eggs in maturing berry crops and renders them unmarketable.

SWD was not eliminated in previous tests with traps placed throughout berry plantings, and the technique was too expensive. The only control seemed to be one or two pesticide applications per week.

Concklin turned to an integrated pest management (IPM) method used successfully in vegetable crops called perimeter trap cropping. In this two-year project, the goal was to protect a late season strawberry crop from a peak population of SWD by surrounding the strawberries with a fall red raspberry planting.

No insecticides were applied to the strawberries, but the raspberries were sprayed from the inside of the block outward. As a result, 96 percent of the strawberry fruit was free of SWD and marketable. “This could provide another management tool for berry growers,” Concklin said.

Fine-tuning fertilizer use with science

In a second project to benefit fruit growers, Concklin brought science-based research to bear on the complicated task of making fertilizer decisions. Some growers apply fertilizer based on previous experience or the way a plant looks, but when they do, they are not taking into account the many scientific factors involved. For example, if too much or too little is applied to the crop, the fertilizer can create an ongoing nutrient imbalance in the soil, contribute to poor yield and quality, cause water contamination or result in a financial setback for the grower.

Concklin’s self-described “fined-tuned fertilizer program” was so overwhelmingly popular that she had to rewrite the research grant to accommodate more interested growers. The new cap was set at 29 instead of the five small fruit, five tree fruit and five grape growers she had initially envisioned.

“The growers are so receptive and wonderful to work with me in any project I have going on. No one turns you down when you are looking for participants,” Concklin said.

For three years, the growers used the latest scientific information available for fertilizer application decisions and collected data from their own farms. Concklin met with them every year to go over the results in the study portion of the trial and gave them the results from the check portion of the trial at the end of year three. She said, “Comparing results from year-to-year will show a reliable trend.”

This past summer, the program added eight growers and two UConn undergraduate student interns. The nutrient study showed the same result as the previous data, and the growers expressed appreciation for the educational information they received.

There are several ways that the fruit growers can benefit from this UConn Extension work. Concklin said, “It can help them streamline what they are doing. In some cases, they save money or use their resources more wisely. If crop quality is better, income is higher.”

Looking to the future with grants and educational opportunities

Concklin, who is part of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA), is involved in two recently funded research projects. One grant will allow the development of an IPM management strategy for a persistent tree fruit pest, the apple maggot.

For a project with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Concklin is the overall principal investigator and is joined by other UConn Extension staff in the work, including Associate Cooperative Extension Educator Joseph Bonelli, Assistant Cooperative Extension Educator Miriah Kelly, Assistant Extension Professor Michael Puglisi and 4-H Program Coordinator Pamela Gray. With input from the tribal council and others, the researchers will seek to improve food security within the tribal nation, tribal youth engagement and communications, economic viability of agricultural enterprises and overall health of the tribal members.

Concklin pruning 1
Concklin is featured in two apple pruning videos on YouTube.

In addition to her Connecticut projects, Concklin is part of multistate working groups and organizations where she can contribute to the knowledge base and hear the latest research findings about small fruit, tree fruit and grapes. To distribute information to growers, Concklin helps plan a New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference, emails and posts fruit pest messages to the UConn IPM website, makes fruit fact sheets available online, holds field workshops and stars in two videos on pruning apple trees: Why should we prune? and How to prune.

Concklin’s department head in PSLA, Professor Richard McAvoy, sums up her accomplishments this way: “Mary is one of the top Fruit Extension Educators in the entire northeastern United States. This is a view shared by both fruit growers and academic colleagues in the region. The reasons she is so effective is that her recommendations are well-grounded in both science and practical application, her knowledge is expansive and relevant, and she is a generous colleague and a hard worker.”

For Concklin, who spent time at her grandfather’s orchard in Vermont as a child and wanted to live and farm in the country, the dream has been realized. Not only does she have a fruit farm of her own, she does educational outreach with commercial growers. Concklin says she thinks it is fun to work with different people, and there is not a typical day. Her work also reflects what Extension says about itself: “bringing cutting-edge discoveries from research laboratories to those who can put knowledge into practice.”

Perimeter Trap Cropping for Spotted Wing Drosophila Control (Award #6678) and Developing Fertilizer Programs for Fruit Crops Utilizing Soil and Tissue Analysis (Award #2014 SCBG7) funding was provided by the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded and administered by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.

By Patsy Evans