By Sue Henninger
Local residents frequently drive past the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Though many know the campus buildings are affiliated with Cornell University in Ithaca, they may not understand exactly what goes on inside of them.
That’s about to change, says NYSAES’s current director Jan Nyrop, an entomologist who has enjoyed a fulfilling and satisfying career at NYSAES for 35 years. According to Nyrop, over the past years, their marketing and communication efforts had been greatly diminished.
“But we’re reprioritizing this,” he said, noting that the purpose of branding NYSAES is to “show who we are and what we do-to provide an easy way for people to see if we can offer value to their lives.”
The people he’s talking about are a diverse group that includes farmers, the food industry, new entrepreneurs, policy makers and legislators, technology and digital professionals, and community members.
“The message will be inclusive for all of these,” he declared.
Other aspects of the plan include taking advantage of social media, updating the Station website, and exploring opportunities like TEDx talks as a means of educating the public about food and where it comes from.
NYSAES is one of only two federally designated experimental stations in the United States (the other is in Connecticut). Since its founding by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1880, hundreds of researchers, faculty, staff and students have conducted science-based, solution-oriented food and plant research in its laboratories and on NYSAES’s 900 acres of fields, orchards, and vineyards. This research is funded by federal and state government, industry (farmers’ groups and food processors), and philanthropy. In 1923, the Station became part of Cornell University (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), a merger that has proven highly beneficial to the New York agriculture industry.
Nyrop identified three broad areas that researchers are focused on. Plant breeding, where new crops with desirable traits that are suited to New York growing conditions and are appealing to consumers, is one. Crop management, which includes finding more and better ways to protect crops from insects or to control weeds, is another. The third concentrates on crop use (developing good wine and beer) and safety of use-like finding the best ways to handle and process vegetables.
“We use a systems perspective to solve problems in a cross-disciplinary fashion,” Nyrop said. “All of these are intersecting knowledge domains. Each impacts the other.”
There are numerous practical ways that NYSAES helps area farmers. For example, the spotted wing drosophila is a different type of fruit fly that attacks healthy fruit and has the capacity to instantly decimate a raspberry patch. The Station’s researchers pioneered an insecticide to help combat the insect pest and are now working on “chemical sex attractants,” which pull the fly away from the fruit before it can damage it.
Additionally, Nyrop’s colleague, Susan Brown, cultivated two new apple varieties, Ruby Frost and Snapdragon, which Nyrop believes are as delectable as Honeycrisp and produce more reliably. They’ve also come up with a new ultraviolet pasteurization process at the Station which pasteurizes apple cider without using heat.
NYSAES has a long, proud history of translating research into information, education, and training for farmers and entrepreneurs in the food and agricultural industry. Will this continue in the 21st century? Absolutely, Nyrop said emphatically.
“We’ve evolved in the way in which we do science,” he said. “All of our scientists are comfortable working in the field with experiments or with modern technology in the lab.
“We all use tools to understand biology from a more mechanistic approach,” Nyrop added.
They’ve adjusted their research portfolio as needed too. When consumers became increasingly interested in buying organically, organic production and research of organic growing practices increased exponentially at the Station.
Promising young scientists can benefit from what NYSAES has to offer, too.
“We do more than encourage them – we have a talent pipeline,” Nyrop contended, adding that half the jobs in the agricultural sector, which includes banking, manufacturing, and farming, will go unfulfilled by qualified professionals.
Their Summer Research Scholars program (run by Christine Smart) brings undergraduates from all over the country to Geneva for a summer internship which includes faculty mentoring and the chance to gain research experience. Students are often surprised to discover the broad range of available careers in agriculture, Nyrop said.
“We track the students afterwards and many of them end up continuing on to graduate school at Cornell,” he said.
Like many in his field, Nyrop expressed frustration over the current administration’s position on environmental issues, noting that discounting climate change was both a mistake and frustrating to those already dealing directly with its effects.
“Agriculture is all about weather and weather is influenced by the climate,” he elaborated. “Climate change leads to an increased likelihood of drought and intense rain events, which leads to different diseases which can be more prevalent and spread more quickly.
“This means we need to start breeding plants that have more resilience to extreme weather patterns,” Nyrop added. “It’s almost to the point where the climate has become a major driver for the work we do here.”
However, he asserted that there is a distinct possibility that climate change could offer an incredible opportunity to New York state.
Despite predictions that dry times could become drier and hot temperatures hotter, he noted, “We [in New York State] have water, reasonable temperatures, and good soil. New York could become the food capital for the eastern part of the country in terms of growing, processing, and distributing food.”
Food and agriculture offer enormous potential for economic development, especially in rural communities.
“Other places in the country are already taking up the challenge,” Nyrop said. “More investment is needed along with articulating a vision. (Governor Andrew) Cuomo has said that making New York a leader in food and agricultural research is a goal. Now it needs to be made a reality.”