ALBURGH — Agronomist and nutrient management specialist Heather Darby shared the dirt on the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension’s Northwest Crops and Soils Program Thursday, at the program’s 2016 “Field Day.”
It was an all-day event, held at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh and hosted by the farm’s owners and operators, Roger and Claire Rainville. The morning was devoted to an instructional tour, demonstrating the program’s recent studies, followed by an extravagant lunch, a tasting time and a series of afternoon workshops.
The day began with Darby warning the attendees — dozens of farmers, students and community members covering the entire spectrum of ages — not to pee amongst the crops.
“They are experiments,” Darby stressed. “Each thing that’s out there, we need to collect data from. So we’d appreciate it if you didn’t add any extra fertility. It’s happened before. I’ve run across it.”
It was with that species of humor that Darby kept attendees attentive through hours of data presentation. She said weather studies had been chosen at the day’s first discussion topic because “all farm days start with talking about how crappy the weather’s been.”
The weather studies were a series of trials with short- and long-variety corn. Darby said the program had begun incorporating non-GMO corn into the trials over the past two years, at the request of corn companies and local farmers with new opportunities provided by the demand for non-GMO and organic foods.
“There is a concern among people that if you don’t have the genetics, you don’t have the yield,” Darby said. The short-season corn did not support that theory — both GMO and non-GMO varieties yielded approximately 28 tons of crop. Even among the long-season corn, GMO crop had only the slightest advantage in yield, producing two tons more.
As to the weather, Darby said northeastern rainfall is down three inches below the 30-year average. “You might think, eh, three inches isn’t much,” she said. “This afternoon we’ll probably get about three inches and we’ll be caught up. But this has huge implications for our growing season. As we’re moving into corn pollination, if it stays dry, it’ll have even more impact on yield. Any time a crop tries to go into its reproductive stages, it needs a lot of moisture.”
She pointed out that corn has an upper limit temperature of about 85 degrees. She said, “We’ve had a lot of days over that. You combine that with dry weather, and basically you get desiccation and death.”
Lindsey Ruhl, a member of the crops and soils program, updated attendees on the program’s interseeding studies. Ruhl said studies showed a major difference in overall percent cover and biomass of cover planted in 85-day corn and 96-day corn.
“Our lowest performing ones were the ones with just an oat, or a grain or a clover,” she said. Ruhl said it was important to observe that their most expensive cover crop mix, which had cost $115 or more per acre, did not perform better than cheaper mixes.
Darby said the program had tested only four cover crop mixtures this year, instead of 10, because “they didn’t really perform that different.” She also said they had begun interseeding earlier this year, only 20 days after planting, in the hope that earlier interseeding would lead to better initial growth and possibly reduce erosion during the actual corn-growing season.
“But this year was so dry, the catch wasn’t very good,” Darby said. This was especially true of the annual ryegrass, which nearly died after sprouting, due to the dryness.
Perhaps the hottest topic of discussion was the program’s hemp studies. “Just to clarify, the THC content is very, very low,” Darby warned. “I think it’s a headache-maker, not a recreational, fun thing.”
The hemp attendees viewed was dual-purpose, used both for fiber and for oil. This is the program’s first year growing hemp, after the 2014 Farm Bill allowed research institutions — within states that have already legalized hemp growth for industrial use — to study the plant.
Darby said it took two years to acquire the permits and understand the process to access hemp seeds from other countries, since the U.S. doesn’t grow any. “Then we had to spend about another year figuring out how to fund the research,” she said, “since the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], even though they said we could do the research, will not fund the research.”
With that in mind, Darby thanked everyone who donated to the program’s crowdfunding campaign, through which they raised the funding necessary to perform the first university hemp research in the state of Vermont. She also thanked Abha Gupta, whom Darby credited with getting the permit process underway.
Gupta said hemp can be put into soaps, and the fiber turned into a building material for full structures or converted into a plastic for use in cars. “There’s purported to be over 50,000 uses for hemp,” Gupta said, “so there’s a lot of real potential behind it.”
Gupta said researchers are most interested in how hemp is best suited to this region. “The cows would have a great time with it,” quipped Bakersfield farmer Paul Stanley.
“Didn’t you hear what I said about that?” Darby fired back. “I knew it would be the butt of the Field Day.”
After two hours in the thickening heat, the tour group trudged back to the starting tent for lunch, which included a new-to-this-year tasting tent, featuring “Vermont-grown products from localvores,” according to the day’s agenda.
All Souls Tortilleria, Vermont Bean Crafters, Nitty Gritty Grain Company, Red Hen Baking, Full Sun Company, Valley Malt, Caledonia Spirits, Citizen Cider and Switchback all contributed tasting samples.
A series of informational sessions on hop cultivation, new equipment (including drones, one of which buzzed overhead through much of the tour) and pest scouting closed out the day.