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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Sustainable Agriculture, Recurrent Theme Ingrained in Cornell Ag Education, Research and Extension

March 13, 2012 |

Cornell University was once called the “The first American university” because of its accessibility to students regardless of race, social circumstances, gender or religion, university officials say.

“That was quite a departure from other institutions at that time,” said Michael Hoffmann, director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He noted that many other institutions at the time Cornell was founded (1865) were just focused on educating the elite class. “(Cornell) also offered practical classes: technology and agriculture. When you stop to think about it, agriculture was a major industry in the country at that time.”

Now, Cornell University, a land-grant university, is not only focused on teaching agriculture, but sustainable agriculture in particular. Cornell has future generations in mind as it helps students prepare for careers in agriculture. It has various outlets for promoting sustainable agriculture, including its curriculum, research projects and extension activities.

Lessons in Sustainability

For Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, sustainability is a recurrent theme.

“There’s a freshman-level course focused on sustainable agriculture, but so many of our courses, whatever the department might be, they’re going to have some component of sustainable agriculture,” whether the course focuses on pest management, plant breeding or biological and environmental engineering, Hoffmann said. “It’s kind of ingrained.”

Hoffmann said the college’s Agricultural Sciences major, a relatively new major that allows students to study a broad span of disciplines related to agriculture as opposed to focusing on a single discipline, offers a concentration in sustainable agriculture. The Agricultural Sciences major aims to help prepare students for careers in a variety of areas, such as food production and marketing, agricultural education in secondary schools, organic farming, Cooperative Extension and crop consultation, according to the program’s webpage.

The college also has a student-run sustainable farm called the Dilmun Hill Student Farm, where undergraduate students use organic practices (though the farm is not officially certified organic) to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers, Hoffmann said. The farm, located at the Experiment Station, also allows students to learn about farm management, and it distributes it produce to Cornell Dining, campus eatery Manndible Café and directly to the public, according to the university. Hoffmann said the students usually set up farm stands on campus during the summer.

Dilmun Hill Student Farm farm stand. Photo credit: Anja Timm.

“It’s a real hands-on opportunity for them to learn what it takes to grow food, and they become very passionate about the farm,” he said. “There are a set of (student) managers who make the decision in the spring—what crops to plant, where to plant them, if they have an insect infestation during the summer, how they’re trying to deal with it.”

Dilmun Hill Student Farm had close to 1,000 visitors last year, Hoffmann said. The farm is just one of many that are run by the Experiment Station. The Experiment Station has influence over 14,000 acres of farms and forests and more than a dozen farms, facilities and greenhouses where research is conducted, according to the university’s Web site. It also oversees a $7 million federally-funded project portfolio in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Experiment Station also provide food for the campus’ dining halls and composts about 5,000 tons of material a year, which is taken from about 60 different locations on campus, Hoffmann said. Composted material includes animal waste and food waste, among other things.

Research Explores Organic Systems and Biofuels

One way in which Cornell University paves the way for sustainable agriculture is through its research projects and initiatives. Hoffmann listed a couple examples:

Mark Sorrells, professor of plant breeding and genetics, is directing a project to improve the market value of organically grown grains, which include heritage wheat, emmer, spelt and einkorn, according to the university’s Chronicle Online in a news announcement about funding for the project last year. Sorrells said his project will also “assess these crops’ desirable grain and baking characteristics, including flavor and nutritional quality,” according to Chronicle Online. Another goal of the project is to investigate strategies for accessing local and regional markets.

In another project, plant breeding and genetics assistant professor Michael Mazourek is working on developing unusual fruits and vegetables such as a multi-colored watermelon that provides additional nutritional value, string-less snap peas and even polka-dot snap peas, Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann noted that both Mazourek’s projects and the harvest wheat project take place on the university’s organic research farms. The Experiment Station has a total of three organic farms.

Another important area where the university has made strides is in the study of biofuels, Hoffmann said. The college has two programs, which focus on converting swtichgrass and hybrid willows into cellulosic ethanol.

“We actually have a very large biofuels (research) lab here that kind of leads that conversion process,” Hoffmann said, noting that the lab was funded by the state within the past few years.

Spreading Sustainable Agriculture through Extension

Cornell University has a highly active extension division when it comes to spreading knowledge about sustainability within its local farming communities.

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s  (CCE) Web site claims its Agriculture and Food Systems division “links research and extension efforts at Cornell University, CU Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca, and the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.” It focuses in areas of dairy and livestock production, field crops and nutrient management, fruits and vegetables and farm business management, economics and policy.

CCE manages the Finger Lakes Sustainability Farming Center, an educational and applied research entity that promotes sustainable practices. It also leads various organic projects that aim to share information and help improve organic systems. Some of those projects are the Organic Dairy Initiative, the Organic Cropping Systems Project, the Northeast Organic Network (NEON) and the Organic Seed Partnership.

Anu Rangarajan, a senior extension associate, leads the Cornell Organic Work Team, a network of researchers, educators, farmers and nonprofit representatives who collaborate on what types of research and educational programs are needed in particular communities. However, Rangarajan said it is important to note that organic production is only a small part of sustainable agriculture, and that is why she works with all kinds of vegetable producers in the state, both conventional and organic, to help them use a variety of environmentally friendly practices.

“I work on reducing tillage, so (that’s) helping farms transition from doing a lot of intensive tillage to more reduced tillage systems. That’s some change in equipment, and that’s also some change in rotation and planning,” Rangarajan said, noting that the process allows the farmer to save fuel, soil and time. “It’s really exciting to see the number of farmers that, as we’ve done research and had educational programs, are investing in changing what they’re doing.”

Other sustainable practices that Cornell Cooperative Extension is working with local farmers to adopt include cover cropping, plant breeding to create seeds that are resistant to certain insects or diseases, improved grazing tactics for livestock, and the development of alternative materials for pesticides, she said.

“The beauty of Cornell or any land-grant (university) is the connection to an extension system,” Rangarajan said. “Their job … if they’re working agriculture, is to be working (with) good producers to have them adapt and adopt the best practices to make sure that they can do the right thing.”

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