Field day at the UMass research farm aims to teach area farmers about latest innovations

The Recorder. August 4, 2014.By Richie Davis. 

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Pigs and bumblebees were there, as were biochar, solar collectors and energy- saving coolers.

Agricultural field day at the University of Massachusetts Crop and Animal Research Farm is an annual chance for farmers to see the latest innovations in crop research, and the event last Tuesday event drew more than 60 people to view 18 ongoing trials, including one that integrated pig and vegetable production.

With an increased demand for locally raised meat and a growing demand by vegetable growers for manure, the strategy of having a test crew of 10 pigs eat hairy vetch and winter rye as cover crops before letting them loose in a harvested squash field was what Frank Mangan, a vegetable researcher, was looking into.

“Working with vegetables for 30 years, I wanted to work with a crop that you can actually harvest year-round,” Mangan told onlookers as an assistant whistled to 10 four-month-old pigs that come running across what had been “a very lush field of vetch and rye” that they continue to trample and eat.

The farm is going through the process of applying for certification from the federal Good Agricultural Practices and state Commonwealth Quality programs, under which manure is becoming heavily regulated.

“We’re trying to make the case that manure is an important part of our system here in New England, with smaller farms, and we want to encourage that kind of rotation,” he said. Current GAP rules require a 120-day wait period from the time manure is applied until a vegetable crop that “touches the ground” can be harvested. “They’re still negotiating this, and we want to make the case that this is a viable system, and we can do it safely.”

The pigs are scheduled to be slaughtered in late September, at about 200 pounds each, to provide one dinner for one of UMass’s four dining commons.

“We serve 45,000 meals a day,” he said. “I hear that and I think ‘market,’” especially since the Amherst campus is signed up for the Real Food Challenge to serve 30 percent of its meals with local, non-genetically- modified foods.

Feasting on the cover crop, he said, the pigs are eating half their normal volume of grain as part of a diversified, low-labor system providing a vegetable as well as meat.

Years ago, when farmers were encouraged to plant cover crops, they said the land was too valuable to be used for that purpose, Mangan said. “Here instead of just raising pigs on an acre or growing a vegetable, we split it in half, so the full acre is ‘in production,’” with the squash harvest planned in September, 120 days after the manure was applied.

Another example of mixed crop was what agronomy professor Stephen Herbert called “the first installation of dual-use grazing land and solar panels” in the country, with 90 to 95 percent of normal hay yields. “What you see around the country, and around Massachusetts is farmers giving up land for solar panels,” said Herbert. “We need every acre of farmland we have for food.”

The UMass system, with 70 panels 7 feet off the ground and arranged on posts at different distances apart, generates 26 kilowatts of electricity on less than a quarter-acre, and includes small plantings of tomatoes, kale, broccoli and lettuce. A larger system is also planned.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said of the systems, plotted so the panels shade out little of the crops. “You just have to be crazy enough to imagine what you might do.”

On a demonstration plot on one-half acre, biologist Lynn Adler pointed to 1,500 flowering plants of 15 varieties which researchers are inoculating with laboratory-raised parasites, crithidia. The crithidia are placed in large screen cages with common Eastern bumblebees to study the effect of different defensive plant chemicals on transmission of disease to the bees. The research is part of a broader study of diseases that are weakening native bee populations.

“We’re recording how many flowers they forage on … and how much total foraging time,” said Adler, explaining that after each afternoon’s trial, the bees are returned to the lab and dissected after a week to see whether they are infected and what the extent of the infection is.

It’s far too early to know whether it’s the bee balm, foxglove, snapdragons, sunflowers or other varieties that are most likely to transmit the pathogen left in the feces of other infected bees, and to discover what kind of floral traits might predict odds of transmitting disease.

“Is it species that make lots of flowers, is it species that make lots of nectar, is it flowers of a certain shape, or flowers with a defense chemistry in their nectar?” said Adler. “Can I make some more general predictions that would help us be able to predict in a landscape which species are likely to be the hub of transmission?” That kind of research is a far cry from testing the use of a humidifier with air-cooled food storage systems that try to boost energy efficiency and also the freshness of stored fall crops like carrots, or a test to improve soil fertility by using mineral-rich rock dust and biochar from burning plant matter with limited oxygen.

But each of the experiments, Herbert said, could potentially have import applications in helping to make agriculture in the region more viable.