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Around The Grange
Ag Experiment Station marks century of research

By John Burgeson, CT Post (8/7/10)

  AUGUST 17, 2010 --

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station on Wednesday, August 4th, observed its 100th annual Plant Science Day, an annual celebration of scientific discovery and agriculture.

According to entomologist Kirby Stafford III, visitors to the event got there by trolly in its early years. Of all of the thousands of major findings made by the experiment station over the years, the discovery of so-called "double cross" hybrid corn in 1919 by Donald F. Jones remains a towering achievement, station scientists say.

"Against genetic dogma at the time, he crossed two crosses of corn -- that is a double-cross hybrid -- which resulted in significantly greater yields," Stafford said.

In the last several decades, much of the work on corn at the station has been carried out by David Hill, a scientist at the station since 1957.

"The discovery of hybrid corn became a global event," he said.

For Plant Science Day, he prepared a "three sisters" plot, not unlike those of the Native Americans, in which corn, peas and squash are grown together. "The corn is planted first. When it's tall enough, the peas are planted, which are supported by the corn. And then squash grows between the rows."

Several scientists at the station are attempting to engineer a comeback of the American chestnut, an almost indispensable tree that was nearly wiped out by the chestnut blight fungus. This causes a canker that soon "girdles' the tree, killing it. That team, led by Sandra L. Anagnostakis, is experimenting with cross-breeds of chestnuts from Turkey, Russia, China, Japan and elsewhere. The goal, she said, is to create a hybrid that looks like a American chestnut, but is also disease resistant.

The blight, which arrived on U.S. shores from Japan in 1905, is only one of three organisms that attack the chestnut. "There's also ink disease, which is a root fungus that came here in the middle 1800s, and the Asian Chestnut gold wasp, which is a very serious pest that arrived here in 1974," she said.

There were more than 80 exhibits set up, some dealing with arcane topics such as "composting leaves using the static pile method" to the Lockwood Farm's inviting bird and butterfly garden, which included a display of the scores of butterfly and moth species that visit it.

An exhibit put together by invertebrate scientist Charles Vossbrinck focused on the hidden world of animals too small to see without a microscope. To Vossbrinck, an ant would seem elephantine.

"Take these mites, for example," he said. "They live in the breathing times of bees." He had samples of one particularly hardy animal, the tardigrade. "It's a fraction of a millimeter long, and it can survive the vacuum of space," he said, adding that there are probably dozens in each cubic foot of backyard soil.

He said it's a hard existence for soil fauna, even if you're a grub. "There's a nematode (a tiny, primitive worm-like animal) that injects the grub with a bacteria that grows inside the grub, which the nematode eats," he said. "This may eventually benefit us, because the bacteria have an antibacterial agent that kills all of the other bacteria in the grub."

Not all of Vossbrinck's research is in the soil. Some, he said, is carried aloft, where all sorts of tiny insects can be found in special drag nets of aircraft flying at great altitudes.

One exhibit demonstrated that the dairy farmers of a century ago weren't quite as forthright and honest as folklore has it.

The exhibit, showcasing scientific instruments from the turn of the last century, included a ledger sheet from 1904 titled: "The following milk samples are unquestionably adulterated." It then went to list the offenders by name.

In Ansonia, the dairy farm of George Berger sold milk that "contained borax" and milk from the farm of G. Lagella was listed as "watered." Also selling watered-down milk were the farms of G.A. Barhite and E.L. Hoyt of Trumbull. The Bridgeport farm of S. Thorpe sold milk described as "watered, dyed and contained formaldehyde." Dozens of dairies from across the state were tallied in this list of shame.

"Back then, the Experiment Station was a kind of Consumer Product Safety Commission," said Brian D. Eitzer of the station's analytical chemistry department, which to this day carries out quality tests on a wide range of items, from fertilizer to maple syrup.

For the last few weeks, it's been testing seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to determine which sea floor beds and ocean regions should be closed to fishing because of the colossal BP oil spill.

"A hundred years ago, about 30 percent of the fertilizer we tested was deficient," Eitzer said. "Now, it's 16 percent, which really isn't that much of an improvement considering all that's happened in the last century."



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