Ag station cultivates quality, quantity in research

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, April 4, 2012

By Stephen H. Cowles/Contributing Writer

SUFFOLK—Newcomers or even passersby might wonder what goes on at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Holland Road.

Are mysterious experiments being done to create extra-large cotton bolls? Well, there are indeed tests regularly being performed — but nothing so fantastic as super-size peanuts and the like.

The facility’s purpose is the same now as it was 98 years ago: “To enhance efficiency and profit potential in the production of food and fiber, and to do so in a manner that protects the environment and the public good.”

That’s according to TAREC Director Dr. Allen F. Harper, who put together a brief history of the site in 2008.

“We’re one of 11 outlying agricultural stations in Virginia Tech’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences – and one of the larger ones with an integrated faculty, staff, technicians and administration,” Harper said. “Six of the faculty here are on the same academic level as the main campus. We publish in agricultural journals and write research grant proposals, receive and advise graduate students.”

“Growers and extension agents and agribusinesses support us,” he continued. “We answer to the stakeholders — the growers and agents — as well as the college. We’re very dependent on writing grants.”

Ensuring the quality of the science performed is paramount. That is, Harper added, “Can you trust that this is scientifically and academically sound?”

Crop production isn’t the only concern at TAREC. Harper emphasized protecting the environment, reducing grower input costs and developing strategies that emphasize both quality and quantity.

“We’re really blessed with the technical staff. They’re experienced to carry out the work on a daily basis,” he said.

For example, four faculty members deal chiefly with crops, and two are “the pig guys,” Harper being one of them.

In terms of resources, there’s a considerable amount of field crop work done about three miles away on Hare Road. Dr. Maria Balota, TAREC’s assistant professor for plant pathology, physiology and weed science, works there.

Balota shared information about portable “rain exclusion shelters” designed to limit rainfall on winter wheat and, later, peanuts. She’s been working with graduate students in studying and developing the mechanisms for peanuts to withstand drought and heat.

“We’re increasingly seeing drought and higher temperatures than normal on a national and global scale,” said Balota, who added that too much in either direction could affect crops.

They’re also looking at how much water and the time it’s applied as effects on crops’ flowering and vegetative growth.

“There’s a big push for developing peanuts with a higher shelf life,” said Balota.

She added that testing is also done in local farmers’ fields, at three sites in North Carolina and in collaboration with Clemson University in South Carolina.