Keeping it simple

Hops, truffles and all things farmin’: Among many duties, researcher and author Jeanine Davis helps farmers try new crops, like hops and truffles, and find ways to stay profitable, even in tough times. photo courtesy Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center

If you live and garden in Western North Carolina, chances are good you've heard of Jeanine Davis. If you're a farmer, chances are better that you've benefited from her research, expert advice or constant efforts to improve the quality of local farming. Davis is an associate professor at N.C. State University who’s stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. Her job description is really quite simple: keep farming profitable.

Mountain Xpress: How are you involved with the Extension Service?
Jeanine Davis:
Most extension agents work at the county level; the counties actually pay a part of their salaries. But I work at the state level, and my job is to help the county agents. I'm the person they call if they have questions, and I help them get the training they need.

How do you help keep farming profitable?

By exploring and developing new crops and optimizing organic agriculture — an area of farming that is growing despite the recession. And, of course, helping farmers with the problems they have. Growers would love it if I spent all my time on disease control and weeds. We have the perfect climate for growing crops, but we also have the perfect moist climate for diseases. The growers need solutions and products tested.

What are some of the new crops being developed?

We're exploring black Périgord truffles from France. We've planted a truffle orchard at the Waynesville station. It's a new industry for us: There are a lot of unknowns, and it's still very risky, but I think it has potential as a crop for Western North Carolina. There's a time issue, because the process involves inoculating sapling trees with the mycelium (which actually helps the roots take up nutrients for the trees); then waiting for both trees and truffles to grow to a proper density for harvesting. Still, this is a potentially profitable crop: Truffles are very expensive and wonderfully delicious.

Another crop is hops. Over the last three years, a small group of farmers have established hop yards and started selling them to local breweries. It's a perfect fit for our area with all the craft breweries Asheville attracts, and those breweries want to buy locally. A few years ago there was a hops shortage, and home and craft breweries were hit the hardest. Typically, hops grow in the Pacific Northwest, and people thought they wouldn't grow here because of disease issues, but we’re trying them anyway. Our job is to find the best cultivar for the region and identify disease issues, nutrition and pests. We're putting in an experimental hop yard using locust poles harvested from horse-drawn logging equipment at the Mills River station.

How are you promoting organic agriculture?

We just established a new unit at the Waynesville station called the Mountain Organic Research and Educational Unit, or MORE. It's there to do research that optimizes organic agriculture. For instance, we just completed a study on weed control, using peppers as the crop. We tried bare ground, black plastic (which is not reusable), straw, landscape fabric (which is reusable) and a cover crop of clover. Then, when the weeding began, we timed how long it took to manage the weeds with each method. The straw was easy at first, until the weeds started growing up through it, and then we had to weed by hand (which, of course, wasn't the case with bare ground, where we could use a hoe). We've just finished compiling the data for this — the cost-effectiveness, the time involved — and that information will be available to growers online. We save the growers time and money by trying methods and products first, then sharing our results with them. Sharing information with the farmers — and the farmers with us — is a crucial part of what we do.

Do the farmers use the online resources much?

Yes, we have a huge and very active Facebook community and Twitter too. Farmers post their questions on it, and others respond with how they handled the same issue. I keep the community updated with a blog which links to our Facebook page.

What's your favorite part of your job?

Being part of the overall gardening community is important to me. I was a founding member of the Organic Growers School and am on the board now. But my favorite part is helping the farmers — actually being out in the field with them, discussing what works and what doesn't work — which I don't get to do as much as I'd like.

— Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.

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