November, 1998


irrigation.gif (53904 bytes)Research Center Flourishes in Heart of Sussex Farm Country

Take a drive down Route 9 near Georgetown and sooner or later you’ll pass UD’s Research and Education Center (REC), spread out on either side of the highway.

Irrigation systems are key to bountiful harvests in the sandy soils of Sussex County.

At first glance this center of environmental and agricultural research seems like any other farm, blending easily into the woodlands, pastures and cropped fields of rural Sussex County. But for 55 years, the REC, formerly the Delaware Agricultural Experiment Substation, has contributed to the improvement of Delaware crops, the advancement of broiler health on Delmarva and creation of innovative farming methods that safeguard water and soil quality. From pre-Revolution land-grant farm families to newly arrived Hispanic immigrants, for the growers and residents of Delaware’s southernmost county, the REC is a trusted next-door neighbor--one that can be depended on for accurate information and educational programs.

"This research center is built on years of tradition addressing agricultural and environmental issues and serving the farm community and the public," says Mark Isaacs, director of the REC. "Our work is aimed at helping the grower produce better crops for greater profitability. We also we have a world-recognized diagnostic poultry program that for more than half a century has contributed to broiler health throughout Delmarva."

Isaacs cites the interaction between college and Extension as an integral part of the REC’s research operation.

"We’re lucky to have Extension specialists, agents and educators on site," he says. "Many of our specialists have research appointments and conduct numerous research projects. Following the results from these studies, specialists and agents aggressively disseminate the information to our clientele. What we do is respected because of this rapid response to needs."

About 200 of the center’s 350 acres are tilled for fundamental research in agronomic and vegetable crops. In addition to the farm, the REC has two primary buildings--the main office building and the Lasher Laboratory. Together they house laboratories, classrooms and offices for administrators, scientists, and county Extension personnel.

pipette.gif (61452 bytes)In the newly renovated Lasher Laboratory, there are administrative offices, six research laboratories designated for the Poultry Diagnostic Center, one laboratory for plant and soil sciences studies and another for water and environmental quality research. An interactive teleconferencing room is scheduled to open in the summer of 1999. It will be used for undergraduate and graduate classes, conferences between faculty and staff in Newark and Georgetown, as well as for Extension programs, workshops and conferences. The REC was able to renovate this former U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry lab thanks to the support of Dr. Hiram Lasher, a longtime advocate of the college and the poultry disease program.

petrie.gif (48849 bytes)In the Poultry Diagnostic Lab, a technician pipets blood samples for testing (top) and (right)

Since 1952, the Poultry Diagnostic Center at the REC has provided diagnostic services to Delmarva commercial and private poultry producers. It also supports UD research and educational programs, including interaction with other universities, regulatory agencies and commercial companies.

"Our diagnostic center serves as a liaison between Newark research in poultry disease and the industry," says Dr. Ed Odor, the soft-spoken veterinarian-turned-researcher who has directed the program for 17 years. Odor and his staff routinely screen more than 3,000 blood samples a month for avian flu, Newcastle disease, respiratory infections and other problems.

Discovery of a highly infectious disease outbreak can check the spread of the disease. Flock supervisors drop off suspect chickens for diagnosis. Odor and his colleague, Dr. Mariano Salem, take tissue to examine for pests, growths, lesions, nutrition deficiency and viruses. Samples also undergo testing for serology--the study of serums--and histology--microscopic anatomy at the cellular level. These tests could lead to better vaccines to prevent the viruses. Odor says UD’s Poultry Diagnostic Center draws students and scientists from around the world.

Not far from the Lasher Lab is an ongoing research and educational project--the Master Gardener demonstration garden. What began as a yearly one-day display for Farm and Home Field Day has blossomed over the last six years into a permanent exhibit on the grounds of the REC. More than 50 Sussex County Master Gardeners are involved in the planning and upkeep.

"These gardens serve as a year-round classroom and exhibit for plants that do well in Sussex County," says associate director Jay Windsor, who in addition assists with the day-to-day REC operations and also handles Extension’s Master Gardener and horticulture program in Sussex County. "Home gardeners can drop by any time to view our array of plantings and get ideas."

In summer, varieties of heirloom tomatoes, herbs, shade-loving plants, annual flowers, perennial ground covers, decorative grasses, roses and asters abound in this area, which is always open to visitors and students alike. Using the garden as a hands-on laboratory, Master Gardeners offer workshops on composting and growing vegetables and flowers.

While the trial plots and laboratories that comprise much of the REC farm are vital to the research program, the people who work there are its most valuable resource.

"It’s the best job in the world," says Vic Green about his position as REC farm manager. "Every day is different."

A college alum with a degree in animal sciences, Green, like many workers at the REC, came from industry, drawn by a strong desire to help people and do work they see as critical for a profitable agriculture and a healthy, safe environment. He oversees the day-to-day operation of the farm, one task of which is to harvest crops.

"With this new combine, we can harvest 1,200 plots a day, when before we averaged 200," says Green as he climbs into the cab of the harvester. "Its equipped with a computer system and a printer. The data is collected automatically on a disk that can be inserted into an office computer. This eliminates the need for inputting data for comparisons, which is how it was done in the past."

There’s one crop at the REC that Green skips at harvest time--the weed crop. More than 25 different weed species can be found among the many corn and soybean plants.

Dr. Mark VanGessel, Extension weed specialist and assistant professor for weed crop management, spends hours in these strategically grid-mapped fields on which various weed controls have been applied. Creating the right herbicide combination, determining the best time to apply it and applying the right amount are all components of weed control research studied at the REC. Through this research, VanGessel and his team can assist growers, agricultural-chemical companies and Extension agents pinpoint specific weeds that challenge Delaware crops. They also make recommendations on the best line of defense against weed infestation.

In his search for innovative ways to reduce the grower’s costs as well as lessen environmental risks, VanGessel uses a state-of-the art spray system in the pesticide building that was funded by the Delaware Soybean Board. In this completely self-contained spray chamber, he can test, in small batches, many chemicals and chemical combinations.

tracyanded.gif (79014 bytes)September is a busy time for vegetable research at the REC. Ed Kee, Extension specialist for vegetable crops, and Extension vegetable associate Tracy Wootten are in the middle of hand-harvesting 18 lima bean trial plots. Each year they compare varieties of limas--the predominant vegetable crop in the state--to commercial standards by assessing pods, shells, weight and seed for best varieties grown under local weather conditions and soil types.

Tracy Wootten (right) and Ed Kee (left) show a Sussex farmer what diseases can in occur in watermelons

This is only one part of their continuing effort to improve the product and increase profitability for Delaware vegetable growers. They work on better lima bean production through trial cultural practices; improved harvesters; and weed, disease and insect controls. Kee and Wootten do similar research on pickling cucumbers, potatoes, peas, watermelon and cantaloupe.

In the middle of this harvest, a farmer stops by with a question about diseases in watermelons. Kee and Wootten take him to the field to show him what too look for firsthand.

"A 10-minute course in watermelon pathology," Kee remarks with a laugh as he steps over watermelons in the fields. "Things like this take place every day. It’s what’s great about being here at the research center. We just go outside to show growers what they need to look for."

Stepping over rows of harvest stubble, Kee becomes reflective, his attention turning from current trials to the rich history of the research center and the people who have worked to build up the regard in which farmers hold the REC.

"Working here is a privilege," says Kee. "A heritage of good work preceded us--the legacy of people like Bill Mitchell, John Heuberger, Tom Williams and Bob Stephens. I just try to measure up to the tradition and sound science on which this facility was built. It’s like no other in that Extension and the college are aligned. We are the bridge between fundamental research and implementation in commercial fields."

Isaacs agrees with Kee about the role of Extension at the center, "The relationship between the college and Extension at the REC is unique in the United States," says Isaacs. "We do traditional agriculture and so much more.

"Derby Walker, an Extension agricultural agent in Sussex County for more than 20 years, is a good example of how much a part the college and Extension are in this county," explains Isaacs. "Farmers trust him completely. For Derby, there are no lines between work week and weekend. Farmers know that when they call on him, he will come—-regardless of the time."

Extension at the REC has a history of education and service. In addition to agriculture, county Extension educators work with individuals, families and communities to sustain and develop a balanced economy and to enhance the quality of life for Sussex Countians. While some of the Extension staff has worked with agricultural initiatives, other Extension educators have been teaching people skills in areas, such as more productive home gardening, better nutrition, food safety, strengthening youths and families, and financial management.

"The advantages to being physically at this facility mean that Extension has extra resources to draw on," says Mary Wilcoxon, Extension educator for family and consumer sciences. "Many of the projects or programs that come along may offer the opportunity for involving several of the educators."

boyandchick.jpg (19913 bytes)The hallmark of Extension is communication, collaboration and integration. Bill McGowan, county director, values this teamwork approach to Extension programming. He engenders an atmosphere in which frequent educator interaction can take place. One project that involved a number of staff is work with a local community to establish a youth program and to arrange with the community leaders about the part Extension would be expected to play. Mary Argo, 4-H agent, was tapped to provide advice on youth programming. Another project being developed concerns total farm management. Wilcoxon will be coordinating the personal financial management segment of the training while the agricultural educators will present information on handling farm financial issues.

"Hands on Agriculture"  A young visitor to the 1998 farm and home field day holds a chick at the farm animal petting zoo.  The goal of the first farm and home field day 55 years ago was to show farmers the results of poultry research and grain and vegetable trials.  Today, this annual August event has been expanded to involve the general public in agriculture with educational exhibits and tours.

In the last decade Sussex County’s Hispanic population has increased greatly. Extension has responded with programs in traffic safety, nutrition, food safety and youth programs aimed at assisting this group adapt to life in the United States. In answer to a need for early child development and effective parenting skills, Extension joined with other agencies and social services to establish a day care specifically for Hispanic pre-schoolers in Georgetown.

The REC depends upon outside support. Field research is supported by agribusinesses, the poultry industry and commodity groups as well as county, state and federal funds. The Delaware Soybean Board’s generosity supports much of the soybean research through grants. State Sen. Thurman Adams is a champion of Delaware agriculture and a strong supporter of the center. As a fifth-generation farmer, Adam’s family has used the research center to learn better farming strategies and to remain profitable. According to Isaacs, Adams credits the REC as a factor in the success of his family’s enterprise.

UD’s Research and Education Center has deep roots in the sandy soils of Sussex County, and its branches reach far beyond county and state borders. It is this far-ranging scope and commitment to Delmarva’s agricultural industry that will keep the research at the REC expanding and thriving well into the next century.

windsor.gif (53660 bytes)Home Gardeners, Start Your Spring Cleaning in Fall

For the home gardener, the crisp fall weather signals that it’s time to spruce things up and ready the ground for next year’s blooms.

Jay Windsor talks about fall garden sanitation in the Master Gardener’s demonstration garden at UD’s Research and Education Center in Georgetown.

"Taking the time to clean up the garden properly this time of year reduces prep time in the spring and increases the chances for a good crop next year," says Jay Windsor, Extension agricultural agent for Sussex County. "Fall cleanup is also a good defense against plant diseases, insect problems and weed infestation."

Windsor recommends clearing out summer remnants and fallen leaves from planting areas to eliminate winter hiding places for insects and diseases. If not removed, leaves tend to pack down tightly and seal out oxygen from the soil, unlike traditional mulch, which allows air to circulate.

After the beds are raked out, replenish mulch up to two inches deep. Some gardeners apply deeper mulch in flowerbeds and around trees during the winter months to provide extra protection to roots. Windsor stresses the importance of pulling back excess mulch in the spring, however, to allow for plants and bulbs to emerge. He also cautions against piling mounds of mulch against tree trunks. This practice is detrimental to trees because it inhibits air flow and destroys bark.

In the vegetable garden, either remove crop debris and compost it or till it under. Windsor recommends fall tilling for several reasons.

"Tilling mixes the organic matter into the soil, which improves the soil structure and fertility," he says. "Turning the soil over in the fall can interrupt the life cycle of some insect pests, exposing pupae and larvae to winter cold. It is even safe to compost infected plants because most disease-causing organisms cannot survive good composting temperatures."

Another landscape sanitation practice for fall is pruning trees and shrubs. Cut out and destroy all dead wood and any wood that shows evidence of disease or insect infestation.

"Pruning deciduous trees after they shed their leaves is a good practice for most species, and will also reduce chances of disease or insects," says Windsor.

Fall is not the time to prune spring-flowering shrubs, such as azaleas and rhododendrons. Pruning these shrubs in fall eliminates spring blooms, which develop shortly after bloom. For the best results, prune those shrubs when they cease flowering in early summer.

For roses, Windsor recommends a light pruning in October. When temperatures dip below freezing more frequently and roses go dormant, prune again to 6 to 8 inches above ground.

Ornamental grasses may require the least amount of attention in your garden this fall. Leave these low-maintenance grasses tall to lend interesting visual impact to your winter landscape. In early March, cut back ornamental grasses to between 6 and 8 inches from the ground to allow for new growth.

When all of your hard work is finished, don’t trash all of that valuable debris. Leaves, plants and clippings make excellent hummus matter for compost piles. For tips on composting, contact your county Extension office .