Agriculture and Then Some

 

Pop quiz: where is the oldest agricultural experiment station in the U.S.? Obviously, you’re going to guess “Somewhere in Connecticut?” Which would be true, but it might come as a surprise that the main campus—a National Historic Landmark featuring five laboratory buildings and sundry greenhouses—has been located on Huntington Street in the heart of New Haven since 1882, while the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) itself has been in existence since 1875. Then there are the three satellite farms—in Hamden, Windsor and Griswold—where research is undertaken, in addition to the numerous hours spent out and about the state.

“We are very field-oriented,” says Louis A. Magnarelli, Ph.D., the director of CAES, as he shows me around the storied New Haven campus, which is quiet on a summer morning. “Our scientists spend much time in forests, farm plots and marshes. The lab work they do here supports their field studies.” He adds that every department head is also a scientist and is expected to do research, to publish and to find grant money.

When one hears “agricultural experiment station,” the first thoughts may be of improving farm crops or the free soil testing available to any resident (both of which are indeed main concerns), but CAES scientists are involved in many other tasks that have an impact on everyday life, from investigating the disappearance of honey bees, monitoring invasive species and processing food for contaminants to reducing wildlife damage, testing ticks for Lyme disease and tracking mosquitoes for West Nile virus and other diseases.

In fact, CAES scientists were the first in North America to get a culture of West Nile virus after it appeared in 1999, mainly because of the mosquito-trapping program they had established a few years earlier to monitor Eastern equine encephalitis. In a little over a decade, the program has gone from 60,000 mosquitoes being trapped annually in 36 locations and processed to more than 200,000 mosquitoes being trapped in 91 locations and processed. Monday through Thursday nights, from June to October, traps are put out in cities and rural areas, then collected the next morning and brought in for processing. Mosquitoes are kept cold (to keep viruses alive) and are then identified—there are 50 different species in the state—before being taken to the Biosafety Level 3 lab in the basement of the red-bricked Johnson-Horsfall Building. Once there, scientists clad in masks and gloves carefully crush the mosquitoes and extract the material needed to identify still-living viruses (all of which I can see just fine through the thick windows of the lab, thanks).

“It takes five to six days to go from trapping a mosquito to identifying a virus,” says Dr. Theodore G. Andreadis, chief medical entomologist. “Our program works well and provides a great service for the state. Without it, there’d be more human infection.”

The first West Nile culture is just one of the historic contributions of CAES: Research done by Thomas Osborne led to the discovery of vitamin A in 1913; in 1919, geneticist Donald E. Jones invented a double cross-pollination method that created hybrid corn, now grown worldwide; and in 1983, the first antibody tests for Lyme disease were developed here. Recently, thanks to Magnarelli’s efforts, Gov. Rell signed a bill that allows CAES to secure patents, trademarks or licensing agreements for discoveries developed by employees—such as for a new disease-resistant strain of strawberry plant—which may open up new revenue streams.

“Agriculture is a $2 billion industry here in Connecticut, and you have to support that,” says Magnarelli, who has been director since November 2004, but has been at CAES since right after he got his degree at Cornell 35 years ago. “More and more people want locally produced food, and like to get it from a Connecticut farmers’ market.”

To that end, the three CAES farms serve as outdoor labs devoted to developing new and improved plants, trees and crops. The Valley Laboratory in Windsor has a research farm and forest, and has focused on tobacco studies, among other programs, while the recently acquired Griswold Research Center is a former tree nursery that is home to several programs, including the cultivation of rapeseed for biodiesel fuel production.

On this day, we take the short ride over to the scenic 75-acre Lockwood Farm, which last month celebrated its 100th anniversary with a gala Plant Science Day. Overlooking Sleeping Giant in Hamden, the farm (open to the public) features groves of chestnut and apple trees, rows of corn and grape arbors, and an inviting butterfly garden. Dozens of plots are devoted to growing better tomatoes, squash and other crop-bearing plants such as beach plums, which are popular on Cape Cod and which CAES is trying to develop here. Everything edible harvested at Lockwood Farm gets donated to local food banks.

“Farmers rely heavily on us, but a lot of people still don’t know we exist,” Magnarelli says. “After 135 years, you’d think they’d know.”

For more information, call (877) 855-2237 or visit ct.gov/caes.

Agriculture and Then Some

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