Burley and beef to broccoli and biofuel: Test farm plants seeds of new farm economy without forgetting its rootsWritten by Quintin Ellison
Testing canola varieties for biofuel. Growing truffles. Finding hemlocks and Fraser firs that can survive the scourge of the adelgid. Determining best practices for organic heirloom tomato production.
A walk through the fields of the Mountain Research Station will find dozens of projects in process as researchers experiment and push the limits of what the land can produce. The research station, with a more than 100-year history of figuring out new and better ways of farming, is in the midst of redefining itself while staying true to its traditional agricultural roots.
The Mountain Research Station is run by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is one of 18 such test farms in the state. This one is the westernmost in North Carolina.
“We are becoming more diverse,” said Kaleb Rathbone, the superintendent of the Mountain Research Station. “It’s important that we are cutting edge. We need to be ahead of the game.”
Rathbone, however, is quick to add that the 410-acre station isn’t moving away from conducting conventional farming research.
“We’re not doing less of the beef cattle and tobacco — we’re actually doing more there, too,” he said.
But these days it’s the alternative, organic, new-age and exotic farming going on there that is capturing the public’s imagination. That work and the ensuing gee-whiz factor helps ensure that the Mountain Research Station, which faced the possibility of closure just a few years ago, is likely to continue for the next 100 years.
Ultimately the point of the Mountain Research Station is to improve farmers’ bottom line in an increasingly more difficult farming environment.
Whether it is better tomato yields per acre, less crop loss from blights, growing organic which fetches higher prices than conventional, breeding calves with better traits so they in turn fetch more at the market, or moving toward more lucrative niche crops so local farmers don’t have to compete in the cut-throat world of large-scale commercial, corporate farming — all of this is aimed at helping farmers be able to keep farming.
The Mountain Research Station underpins the agricultural trends of the region, from tobacco to Christmas trees. That Cadillac of Christmas trees, the Fraser Fir, was developed here for farmers, and is now one of the region’s most lucrative crops.The test farm presents farmers with common-sense solutions to real-world problems.
Broccoli and truffles
On any given day, the test farm is dotted with researchers checking on their crops and test plots. On this day last week the weather was particularly warm and sunny and Emily Bernstein and her crew were lathering on the sunscreen. They had 4,000 to 5,000 broccoli plants to get into the ground, a task made easier with the help of a tractor and transplantor being operated by horticulture supervisor Chris Leek and another station worker.
The crew is taking part in a five-year effort to develop broccoli varieties suitable for the East Coast. Most of the broccoli was developed for climates and conditions out West.
What this means, as most any local gardener could explain, is that broccoli bolts when it turns consistently warm. As a result the broccoli-growing season here is truncated to spring and fall growing only and farmers can’t cash in on this potentially lucrative cash crop.
Bernstein said the project started last year with a broad screening of 40 to 50 varieties. More screening is being done this year. A dozen of the most promising varieties will be picked for further testing.
“Will this grow here and can it take the heat?” Bernstein said in a succinct explanation of the research being conducted.
Broccoli will be grown five times from now until July. Once plants are mature, the crew will move through the plantings with a scorecard. They will rate the bead size of the broccoli head, the shape of the dome (an ice cream cone shape is preferred), uniformity and color.
Bernstein is also the research specialist on another Mountain Research Station project — an attempt to find out if Black Perigord Truffles can successfully be grown in WNC. That, for now at least, is a less labor-intensive project than the broccoli. The crew planted Filbert, or American hazelnut, trees three years ago, she said. The roots of the trees were inoculated with truffle spore and the soil was heavily limed to make the soil pH more alkaline. Everyone now is simply waiting the necessary five to seven years to see if truffles do indeed grow. If they do, WNC could find itself with a very lucrative cash crop indeed, courtesy of the Mountain Research Station.
A stable research situation
It’s still early in the day but Ben Smith, an entomologist, is hard at work with three colleagues in a small office at the Mountain Research Station last week. Smith’s job seems daunting: develop Fraser firs and Eastern and Carolina hemlocks that can survive the adelgid attack, an insect infestation that has nearly wiped out hemlock forests. Meanwhile, its near cousin the balsam woolly adelgid has caused the Fraser fir to become a threatened species.
Smith and his colleagues are taking a two-pronged approach. They are looking for resistant trees — you know they aren’t resistant, he noted wryly, if they’ve been killed by the adelgid. They are then breeding those trees to develop a resistant hybrid strain. The Alliance for Saving Threatened Forests is providing funding.
What’s taking place here is extremely similar to work done by the American Chestnut Foundation. That tree, once the mighty giant of our eastern forests, was a vital part of the forest ecology, a key food source for wildlife and an essential component of the human economy. In the early 1900s, a lethal blight, accidentally imported from Asia, spread rapidly through the American chestnut population.
Work started some 30 years ago to develop a blight-resistant tree, by cross-breeding a sliver of the immune Chinese chestnut with the American version. It’s now been accomplished, and forests are slowly being planted with the new American Chestnut.
Research like this takes a long time. Decades are likely to pass before a solution is found. And that’s why the Mountain Research Station is so critical — it serves as a dependable testing situation, Smith said.
“We would be in a very different position if the station weren’t here,” he said. “One thing that is extremely important in breeding is the long term. The earliest we could see results would be in seven to 10 years, it could be as long as 50 years. It’s important to have stable ownership of the land you have the trees on, or you can lose the test. The fact that we know this is going to remain available to us is really important.”
Robert Jetton, a fellow researcher, underscores Smith’s point: “Having a stable facility like the research station is the key,” he said.
Almost closed down
Just a few years ago the future of the Mountain Research Station hung in jeopardy.
In 2008 the Haywood County test farm was one of seven in the state recommended for closure because of a failure to meet profit and performance guidelines. That previous summer a bill in the legislature also proposed closure, but failed to win traction.
Former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, and other mountain legislators fought successfully to keep the research station open.
“We have a very unique situation. It’s quite different from the rest of the state,” Queen said of the reason he believes Western North Carolina needs its own research station. “We have a diversified agricultural sector with small producers. In the eastern part of the state they have huge farms.”
Queen said farmers turned out in droves to support the Mountain Research Station, adding fuel to the fire as the fight went on to save the facility. That level of support didn’t surprise Queen.
“I expected the farmers to support it, because for instance if you are a tomato farmer in this area, you are a tomato farmer because of the Mountain Research Station,” Queen said.
Queen pointed out that the station has done work developing the varieties of tomatoes grown here, how to grow them in WNC and how to protect them from various diseases. And the same thing is true, he said, for countless other farming enterprises: Christmas trees, beef cattle, blueberries, tobacco and more.
Bill Skelton, director of Haywood County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, echoed Queen’s sentiment that the Mountain Research Station is vital to area farmers. He said the bull program, for example, has brought wholesale improvements to the quality of WNC’s beef cattle population. Each year the research station brings in 50 to 60 bulls and conducts performance trials. Researchers test for weight gain and growth, diseases, breeding soundness and other qualities. They even use ultrasound to gauge the quality of the ribeye a bull’s packing. The bulls are then sold to local cattlemen — who have made a safe bet that the quality of next year’s calves will carry the desired genetic traits of their father, and in turn will fetch higher prices at market. This has been going on for more than 30 years.
“The herd quality in WNC has tremendously improved because of that,” Skelton said, adding that the same thing is true of tobacco production and other crops.
“They put those questions in the ground and see if they can’t find the answers,” he said.
Planning is name of the game
As Rathbone talks he drives a large pickup truck along the roads of the Mountain Research Farm. A Fines Creek boy raised on a farm, he started working here when he turned 16.
“It’s pretty much home,” he said. And, in fact, Rathbone now lives in a house located on the research facility.
Rathbone became director a couple years ago, replacing Bill Teague, who had been there for some 30 years.
What’s immediately obvious, and what Rathbone pointed out, is how densely used the acreage here is: it seems that practically ever inch of space is home to some sort of research project.
Planning for each new 12-month cycle starts in December of the previous year. There are 35 research projects this year being conducted by 15 project leaders.
The Mountain Research Center itself employees 10 fulltime workers and four or five temporary workers during the summer. The workers take care of the day-to-day operations and are joined on the test farm by researchers and their crews.
Rathbone is optimistic about the facility’s future.
“We’ve got great community support, and because of the work that we do and the impact we have on the producer it brings value to the community. We’ve got a strong future ahead of us,” he said.
That said, Rathbone noted that it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the work done at Mountain Research Station. The loss of the station, he said, would be hugely significant to agricultural interests in WNC.
“It’s the cost of lost opportunity if you don’t have a facility to do the necessary research,” Rathbone said.
A storied history
In an era when agriculture was king, the Mountain Research Station was founded 1908 to help farmers improve their bottom lines. It was located at that time in the Swanannoa Valley in Buncombe County, and was one of the earliest stations of the 18 in North Carolina eventually established.
The station initially conducted soil surveys and tests; commercial fertilizer was tested and rates and production use was researched. Testing and the development of corn, wheat, apples, vegetables, small grains, forages and other crop varieties were also areas of early research.
In 1942, however, the U.S. Army selected the site in Swannanoa to build a hospital for soldiers wounded during World War II. Some of the land was sold and buildings were removed. So in 1944 the station was moved to its present site at Waynesville in Haywood County. Barns and buildings were built, land prepared for research, dairy cattle and poultry were transferred to Waynesville and crop research began again.
1950’s: The primary focus of livestock research efforts was directed towards work with dairy cattle and poultry, which at that period were very important parts of the agricultural industry in the mountain regions of North Carolina. Research efforts in crops were directed primarily to the crops that were most important to the economy of the area at that time. These were burley tobacco, corn and forage crops. A 12-acre apple orchard was established for the purpose of evaluating new varieties of apples and also to study pesticide use and management. This work was phased out in later years.
1960’s: Work with dairy cattle and poultry continued during the 1960’s, but the agricultural economy of the area was changing as poultry production moved to other areas of the state. The poultry work and dairy work were phased out.
1970’s: Burley tobacco continued to be the main cash crop in the mountains and research efforts were continued and increased in this area. Trellised tomatoes made an appearance. Efforts were also made to determine the feasibility of new cash crops that might be successfully grown in the area, including sunflowers and sugar beets. It was discovered that the Fraser, which is native to the high mountains of North Carolina, was the prime species for Christmas tree use and could be successfully cultivated and marketed for this purpose. The first experimental Christmas tree plots for Fraser Firs in North Carolina were established at the Mountain Research Station.
1980’s: The station continued efforts to diversify its research program. Livestock research dominated the station with the addition of a Performance Bull Test program that began in 1980. Blueberry varieties for mountain climates and soils were developed as well as raspberry varieties that could tolerate cold climates.
1990’s: Station facilities, fields and infrastructure were renovated or updated. Sheep and goat research was conducted. Conservation tillage, non-native grasses, small ruminant forages and grazing trials were researched extensively. Eight Burley tobacco varieties were developed and released during the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
2000’s: Leaf lettuce, slaw cabbage, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, specialty crops (peppers, gourds, sunflowers) pumpkins, organics and bread wheat were all part of the station’s research program and trials to farmers find new crop alternatives. A cow/calf research herd was established. The herd is used to demonstrate and research management variables on calf production and carcass data. Extensive goat diet and nutrition, production, and grazing trials were continued.