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Agricultural Experiment Station is friend to farmers
Research addresses problems and helps farmer stay on their farms
The oldest such enterprise in the nation, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station began by analyzing fertilizers for effectiveness in an early consumer protection effort. Its work branched out into research on plant diseases and insect problems. The work continues today, focusing on such critical issues as pesticide use and the testing of new plants for cultivation by state farmers.  (CONTINUED BELOW)

Louis Magnarelli

Director

Agricultural Experiment Station

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Borrowing an idea from Germany

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is the oldest in the nation. It was really a vision of a Yale analytical chemist by the name of Samuel Johnson.  He traveled to Germany in the mid 1800s and saw the Agricultural Experiment Station system and decided that Connecticut should have one to assist the farmers.  For a number of years he worked with the Connecticut state legislature and after about 20 years, convinced them to start the Experiment Station, which was founded in 1875.

In the late 1800s, there were many more small family farms than we have today, and the Agricultural Experiment Station assisted farmers mainly by analyzing fertilizer.  But there were some major problems that occurred in the state. One was an insect problem of fruit trees called San Jose Scale in which fungal organisms were attacking vegetable crops.  So, the program for the Experiment Station expanded from the analytical methods of testing fertilizer and branched out and began to investigate many other problems in agriculture. Plant pathology and entomology, the study of plant pathogens and the study of insects, played a very important role in the research program that we have here.

The work of the station had a tremendous impact in terms of supporting agriculture. There are letters in which farmers tell of saving hundreds of dollars on fertilizers. The key thing there was that fertilizers were being analyzed to make sure they contained the materials that were supposed to be in them, and that there wasn’t any tampering with the product. So it was really an early form of consumer protection. 

The Experiment Station has had some major achievements over the decades. I would say the invention of the Double-Cross Hybrid Corn Method by Dr. Donald Jones was a magnificent discovery that led to greater productivity per acre of corn. This had a tremendous impact on national agriculture, as well as throughout the world. The pioneering work that led to the discovery Vitamin A also was extremely important.  These are two major achievements that occurred at the beginning of the 1900s. 

Our mission remains research on agricultural problems.  We assist the agricultural community in many different ways. We study plant diseases; we diagnose plant diseases and insect problems on plants; we test new crops in the fields.  The other part of our mission is to disseminate information to the public.  The results of our experiments are published in scientific journals and they’re also given in common-language-type publications to the general public. 

Helping farmers cut down on pesticides

Today it’s very, very important that the research we’re conducting be relevant to the farm community.  One of our major programs is to find ways of reducing pesticide use in farm operations. This has been successful.  We’ve managed, in certain settings, to save the farmers’ money on the use of pesticides. And our research has helped reduce exposure to these pesticides of the people working on farms. There’s also a cleaner environment as a result of this work.

There’s a very strong movement in the organic farming part of agriculture, a strong public interest in buying foods that have little or no residues of pesticides on them. But some pesticides have to be used when you have very large acreages of crop production, sot the goal here is to minimize the use of those pesticides, to trim it down to a very, very short window to reduce the exposure and the amount of pesticides in the environment.

The analysis that we are doing on food substances conjunction with the State Department of Consumer Protection, shows that, in most instances, foods purchased in a supermarket have little or no pesticide residue: They’re within the federal limits for pesticides on foods. So foods are safe, for the most part. I think that the analysis that we do every year reaffirms that.  

Also, the number of organic farms in Connecticut is increasing. There are certainly more and more farmers interested in performing this type of agriculture. But for the most part, these are small farms.  The big production found on other farms, either within the state or outside of the state requires different treatment procedures for pesticides and pest problems.

Food security and the locally-grown movement

Food safety is a very important issue right now. There are concerns about pesticides being on food. There are concerns about bio-terrorism events. Farmers rely on us for this monitoring system we have.  The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is participating in a National Food Emergency Response Network, an FDA program. If there ever were an event, a possible contamination with chemicals, those food samples would come here for analysis. The bottom line on this is that the results we produce will either reassure people that there’s not a problem; or, if there is a problem, we’ll be able to report that to the authorities. So there’s a homeland security issue here, and it’s a very important part of our program. 

There are efforts underway within state government to bring agricultural products out on the market for the Connecticut consumer to buy. But, obviously our winters are pretty tough, so other times of the year we have to depend on food coming in from other areas. 

But there is opportunity for greenhouse-grown crops. One that I can give you is tomatoes.  We’ve done research on various tomatoes that will grow in the greenhouse.  The idea would be able to produce the tomatoes for Connecticut residents during times when tomatoes cannot be grown outside. There are approximately 40 farmers growing tomatoes in greenhouses to meet the demand in the state.

If the timing is right, the greenhouse-grown plants can be cost-effective. You have to plant your crops at a time of the year when there’s less demand for fuel. Greenhouse growers time their products appropriately so that, for example, the plants go in the springtime and are ready to produce fruit to put out on the market ahead of the tomatoes grown in the open fields. 

Our experimental work does help keep farmers on the farm because if we can find ways of having them produce quality crops for less cost, then you have kept farmers on the farm. And we test new crops. We have a changing population, many more minorities now – basically Hispanic populations – that want certain crops. We have a research program to evaluate some of these crops that have never been grown here before. So in that way we’re providing a niche crop for certain farmers when other crops are no longer economically feasible to be grown here. 

How the Station does its work

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has about 104 permanent employees.  There are another 50 temporary employees, mostly college students, who during the summertime work along with the scientists.  Our budget is about $ 9 million per year. We have a number of grants that we apply for, federal grants that allow us to work on specific problems. 

Most the scientists work in both the field and the laboratory.  We have about five buildings here that are used for experimental purposes.  We have a 75-acre farm in Mt. Carmel where we do our outside work.  We have another facility in Windsor, about 50 acres, with more laboratories. 

The conditions in the northern part of the state are different than they are in the south, particularly the soil condition and some weather conditions.  So we perform these experiments at both of our farms.  And also we work very closely with the agricultural community and do a lot of our work right in their own fields. 

The future of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is bright, in my opinion.  There will always be a need for agricultural crops in the state because people want to buy locally grown produce.  I believe that farmers will get better at growing quality crops with the assistance of our scientists.  We also have a public health core program in which we analyze mosquitoes for pathogens that affect domesticated animals as well as people.  And we’re involved in a number of environmental studies. For example, invasive aquatic weeds have gotten into our lakes and ponds. This is a water quality issue and we’re trying to assess how bad this problem is in the state and find ways of removing these unwanted weeds from these bodies of water.  Having quality lakes and ponds is very important for agriculture, which needs good water for irrigating crops.  Even a small pond is very, very important for a farmer.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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