The Practical Gardener

Even in the midst of the Civil War, Abe Lincoln still had to worry about running the government. Among those efforts were three bills he signed in 1862 that had major implications for the family farmer. The first established the Department of Agriculture; it was followed soon after by the Homestead Act. The third piece of legislation was the Land Grant College Act, which enabled every state to have its own agricultural school. In 1889, Congress elevated the USDA to Cabinet status, and the department began publishing farmers’ bulletins. Four years later, the annual Yearbook in Agriculture was launched, consolidating a year’s worth of innovations and research on every aspect of agriculture in America.

By 1900, the USDA had grown by leaps and bounds — from a staff of two dozen plus a propagating garden in a vacant lot in downtown D.C. to a wide-ranging agency with some 10,000 employees all across America and a 460-acre, state-of-the-art research farm in Beltsville, Md. Around this time, the Agricultural Extension branch was added to the USDA (see last week’s edition of The Practical Gardener).

It was a government service created to respond to the needs of farmers at the local level, bringing to a rural, grassroots population the practical applications of the research going on at the land-grant colleges. Extension agents forge the link between farmers in need of answers and the state universities where numerous research projects are always going on.

The very cool thing about this setup is that our taxes are supporting the dissemination of information to continually improve our food production. Diane Ducarme is the Buncombe County agent whose specialty is commercial horticulture in all its forms: landscaping, fruits, tobacco, veggie crops, plant diseases, information on pesticide use (for those wishing to go that route), farmers’ markets and more; she is basically the go-to person for farmers in Buncombe County.

Research she conducted a couple of years ago in collaboration with organic grower Tom Elmore is typical of extension agents’ grassroots involvement. The two used test plots at Tom’s farm to investigate the use of compost tea as an organic alternative for reducing late blight in tomatoes. Set up with the help of Ducarme’s predecessor, Tom Buxler, the research was designed to produce readily acceptable, replicable results. In the event, the results proved not to be statistically significant; nonetheless, the project was part of a long tradition of cooperation between researchers and farmers.

But field tests and on-farm research with local farmers are only a small part of what commercial-horticulture extension agents do. Traditionally, most USDA research has been left to the agency’s tremendous network of researchers at state universities, experiment stations and assorted other facilities.

The Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher is one such facility. Test plots have been established there to develop new varieties (such as Randy Gardener’s well respected Mountain Gold tomato), compare new strategies (such as a long-running test comparing no-till, organic and conventional methods in side-by-side plots), and explore new paradigms that dramatically affect local farmers (such as Dr. Jeanine Davis’ investigations into sustainable alternatives for tobacco farmers as they enter an era in which their crop of choice has fewer and fewer buyers).

That initial testing at governmental sites is the first step in bringing information to the farmer. The second step is setting up test plots on farms in different microclimates, altitudes and bioregions in an attempt to validate or challenge the data assembled under facility conditions. The third phase of USDA research assembles all the information into pamphlets available through the Cooperative Extension Service (and on-line at ncstate-plants.net, where you can also link to similar pamphlets offered in other states). The last step in the process is the local agricultural agent, who’s trained to identify problems and to deliver the information in those pamphlets to the farmer.

It’s remarkable how many publications have been published in every state over the last hundred years or so. I have a number of vintage Cooperative Extension informational bulletins (check the gardening section of your favorite used-book store — they’re not hard to find). Generally two to 20 pages long, they cover a wide variety of subjects. Sometimes, naturally, they’re out of date; but often, they’re as valuable as the day they were published.

Organic market-gardening innovator, advocate and warrior god Eliot Coleman maintains that USDA publications provide the best and most complete information available on post-harvest treatment of all crops. Around 1900, Experiment Station Bulletins were published in volumes compiling all the shorter pamphlets for a single year. Here’s a sampling of the information available in the 1901 Illinois edition (which I just pulled off my bookshelf): “millet disease in horses,” “value of common crops for forage,” “investigations on lime as fertilizer,” “cold vs. warm water for plants,” “construction of cheese-curing rooms,” “home-mixed vs. factory-mixed fertilizers,” “food value in hens’ eggs,” “cover crops for orchards, “forcing asparagus in fields,” “field selection of seed,” “the fecundity of swine,” and so on — the list goes on for another 150 or so subjects. And all of it resulted from a single year’s worth of research in one state more than a century ago.

Starting before the beginning of the 20th century, the USDA also began publishing annual thematic yearbooks covering a single subject. These too are fairly easy to find at used-book stores at very reasonable prices. The 1940 edition, Farmers in a Changing World, is an agricultural-history freak’s dream come true. Describing crops, organizations and dying agricultural arts from 60 years ago, it’s an agricultural microsecond caught on paper. The 1961 Seeds edition is packed with page after page of information about every imaginable aspect of the subject. Another resource I’ve often used for reference is the 1962 edition celebrating the USDA’s centennial. Its description of the first 100 years of research and development in this grassroots organization — founded, paradoxically, at the federal level — makes fascinating reading. I’m also especially fond of the 1953 Plant Diseases edition, with its pages of ’50s-era color plates displaying hideously diseased plants. Looking at those photos produces the same kinds of facial expressions one sees on people who have just stomped on an aromatic pile of fresh dog doo-doo.

Research remains the USDA’s backbone; all of the publications that bibliophiles like me swoon over are really just the end point of a long, ongoing process of learning in open-air labs across America.

Until recently, ordinary gardeners like you and me pretty much had to wait for the fruits of that research to get into print to get the benefits of it. But this year, the Fletcher facility’s annual Vegetable Field Day — previously open only to commercial growers — is being opened up to anyone who’s interested. On Thursday, Aug. 8, visitors can get a firsthand look at the current crop of test plots and research. The day begins at 8:30 a.m., and the morning is geared toward the home gardener. The afternoon — geared toward the commercial grower but still open to the public — will focus on current research on tomatoes. A second field day for herbs and ornamentals is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 26.

The Vegetable Field Day is a rare opportunity for gardeners to see some of the best of what your federal taxes are paying for. For more information, contact the good folks at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center (684-3562).

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