Bearing Fruit

Mid-South colleges and universities lead the way on the next generation of agricultural science.

photograph by Skypixel | Dreamstime

The Mid-South region came out of the 1970s looking to shift away from agriculture to factories for textiles, plastic products, and even automobile plants.

It appeared to be fertile ground for Northern-based industry because property here was less expensive and labor also, cost less.

But since the ’90s, researchers are looking back at their Southern roots — wondering about the value of the farming culture that has historically created successful businesses. The relatively level ground, ample water resources, and temperate winters suggest that with some re-thinking, a new generation of farms may emerge to surpass the value of the usual commodity crops.

It’s not Silicon Valley exactly, but scientists at the university level in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas say there’s definitely potential.

One opportunity may come through the introduction of new crops that would not have been considered valuable here in the past.

Researchers at Arkansas State University have been studying one such crop called camelina for the last three years.

Camelina doesn’t look like much. It’s a wispy plant grown in clumps with tall thin stems covered in tiny seeds. One could easily mistake it for some kind of field weed.

“Camelina is an ancient crop, it was grown in the Bronze Age, but it’s a very new crop for the United States and an extremely new crop for Arkansas,” says Dr. Steven Green, associate professor of soil and water conservation at ASU.

Camelina has been grown throughout Europe but was first studied in the U.S. by researchers at Montana State University, who were hoping to find new crops that would flourish in their short growing season.

Southern states are interested in growing it through the mild winter season.

“We think that camelina can be grown much like wheat in the winter months but be able to harvest it earlier than we can wheat, and that allows us to plant our soybean earlier and have a higher yield of soybean,” Green says.

Camelina wouldn’t likely be grown for food, though in Europe, oil from the seeds is used for cooking.

The oil released when the seeds are crushed can be used for a number of non-food purposes such as bio-diesel fuel, industrial lubricants, and ingredients for the cosmetics industry.

The idea of using it for bio-diesel opens up the opportunity for local communities to fuel their own school buses and city vehicles without buying from major international petroleum companies.

What’s more, camelina is particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids. The meal — the remains of crushed camelina after the oil is removed — can be fed to farm livestock whose muscles and eggs become infused with the fatty acids, making them healthier for humans to eat.

“The opportunity for us at ASU is to find which variety works best in our location,” Green says.

And that’s where most universities around the country are at this point. Camelina is not yet being studied on large scales, though universities in Pennsylvania, Florida, and in the Pacific Northwest are researching it.

Arkansas State has received a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant to keep working on it along with Phillips Community College (locations in DeWitt, Helena-West Helena, and Stuttgart, Arkansas) and the University of Arkansas. They are also testing its genetics to develop varieties with larger seeds and maximum yields.

Genetics is also key to research involving ornamental dogwood trees in Tennessee.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville has already turned its work with the prized Southern favorites into a side business of sorts by propagating varieties that are resistant to common diseases.

If sales of dogwoods sound like small pickings in agribusiness, Dr. Mark Windham, professor of plant pathology at UTK, says not to take those delicate white and pink blossoms for granted.
“Tennessee is number-one in dogwood production in the United States,” Windham says. “It’s a very important crop to us.”

The problem is that the trees are as delicate as they look. Two fungal diseases made a huge dent in the industry before scientists began looking for genetic solutions in the 1990s.

“It wasn’t so bad in our nursery region, but it was bad where people were buying them and has hurt the reputation of dogwoods,” Windham says. “People were not buying them anymore. We did a lot of looking for a resistant dogwood. We found several.”

The diseases were Anthracnose, which causes lesions on the leaves and kills the tree over two to five years, and powdery mildew, which coats the leaves in a white, powder-like fungus which stalls growth and blooming and can kill young trees.

Windham and his colleagues screened thousands of trees and found some that are resistant to the diseases.

A variety they call Appalachian Spring was found growing naturally in the woods, and four other varieties, all with “Appalachian” in their names, were located on an abandoned nursery.

Because Appalachian Spring is found in the wild, it cannot be patented, but the name is trademarked as is the reference to it as “disease-resistant.” The other four types of dogwood are all patented now, and the genetic fingerprints are held by Creative Agricultural Technology (CAT), the company formed by Windham under the University of Tennessee Research Foundation.

CAT offers new varietals of dogwoods to Tennessee nurseries for the first three years of sale, before allowing nurseries in other states to have them. That gives Tennessee farmers enough time to grow a stock that can be wholesaled. CAT collects royalties off the sale to wholesellers.

Windham says that a nationwide survey conducted 10 years ago indicated that the waning dogwood industry could bounce back.

“People said they are willing to spend about $14 extra per three-gallon dogwood tree if they were resistant to diseases, so this is a value-added thing,” Windham says. “Nurseries can sell them for more money.”

UT has a vibrant ag presence across the state, not just in Knoxville, with its extension services. The Shelby County Extension Service has been in Memphis for more than a century. Its mission is to help Tennesseeans “improve their quality of life and solve problems through the application of research and evidence-based knowledge about agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H youth development, and community development,” and it is home to the Master Gardener program. Housed at Agricenter International, Shelby County Extension Service is a partnership of the University of Tennessee, Shelby County Government, Tennessee State University, and the USDA.

Finding new ag products isn’t on everyone’s mind, though. At Mississippi State University, research is leading scientists to recommend better ways of doing what farmers have been doing all along.

Research into better management of resources benefits not only the farm but helps protect the environment.

“We’re using research to show farmers how conservation actually marries really well with farming,” says Dr. Robbie Kröger, assistant professor of aquatic systems at MSU. “You actually see better economics in business to the farm.”

One area for improvement is in the fields themselves. Farmers use copious amounts of fertilizers to promote growth of crops, but often the excess fertilizers are washed away, only to end up in rivers and creeks, wasting money and creating pollution.

Kröger says it’s possible to map out a field in order to see where levels of phosphorus and potassium, for example, are already high, and to use specialized vehicles to input fertilizers only where it is needed.

In some cases, fertilizers can be applied directly to seeds, but for the most part, the idea is to apply ground fertilizer with a little less here and a little more there. Leveling the ground also makes it more difficult for rain water to wash away fertilizer and reduces the need for irrigation, especially if pads — miniature levees — are constructed around fields which guide and control run-off naturally, which is also a bigger problem than it may appear to be.

“Mississippi has the highest sediment loss rate in the entire country,” Kröger says.

Kröger is also studying the use of native grasses for cattle farming. He explains that farmers will seed their fields with any number of types of grasses from Bermuda to rye, but those tend to need more fertilizers than the grasses which grow naturally in the area.

Using less fertilizer means lowering overhead for the farmer and, again, less run-off.

Kröger is the first to point out that it doesn’t always take that much effort to make a real difference.

“It’s not rocket science,” Kröger says.

Put simply, it’s the South getting back to its roots.


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