Press-Republican

August 25, 2013

Farm on cutting edge

ALVIN REINER
Press-Republican

WILLSBORO — Cover crop inter-seeding and planting willows for fast-growing fuel were the major topics at a recent Cornell Baker Farm open house.



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Matt Ryan, an assistant professor at Cornell, introduced a modified tractor that is intended to allow for the interspacing of a cover crop with legumes such as clover and vetch between rows of another crop, in this instance corn. The tractor has a special double disk drill. Another application is the use of rye grass to absorb nitrogen and thus prevent it from leaching out of the soil.

Tractor being tested

Since this is the initial utilization of this method, results will start to be tabulated next year. The specialized tractor is one of five prototypes that will be tweaked to provide for maximum efficiency and minimal damage as it maneuvers between rows of corn or other crops. 

Ph.D. student Eric Fabio presented information on shrub willow bio-energy crops.

“We often use marginal land in cool, moist climates as we don’t want to take away from land that can be used for food crops,” Fabio said.

He indicated that the willows can in many instances start to be harvested in as little as three years. Planting is with small stems called “whips” that are basically pushed into the ground, generally with a mechanized planter. A specialized cutter is employed and the harvested crop is often chipped for fuel, although it can also be put into a liquidized form.

The crop yields approximately 30 wet tons or 10 dry tons per acre per year during the three-year harvesting cycles and will vigorously re-sprout after every harvesting for as long as 20 years. Harvesting is recommended in the winter due to the fact that the willow is planted in typically wet environments and thus it helps if the ground is frozen. In addition, the trees are dormant during that time.

Experimentation at the Baker Farm contains 24 willow cultivars that include both commercially available varieties as well as those being bred at the New York State Ag Experiment Station in Geneva.

Another benefit of the willow is a low ash content. Estimates could potentially return more than 1 million acres of under-utilized farmland in New York State to productivity.

Other crops discussed

Baker Farm Manager Mike Davis discussed other crops on the farm and some of the experimentation such as controlling leaf mold and overcoming vigor issues. Nutrient management and reducing tillage are major focus points in Baker Farm studies, especially when evaluating corn crops.

Another concern the farm is addressing is a leaf moth that has emigrated from Europe to Canada, which feeds on onion plants and has been identified on a Willsboro farm.

Concerns over organic grain shortages and quality were brought forth by Heather Darby of the University of Vermont.

“This has been an interesting time, and each year is different. The weather is so variable and volatile,” Darby said. “In the past 30 years, farmers have not seen the problems we have been having such as leaf diseases. This has not been a consideration in the past. We’re trying to figure out what varieties have resistance.”

The Baker farm, comprised of approximately 350 acres of fields and woodlands, provides land representative of the Lake Champlain and St. Lawrence river valleys for applied research, teaching and extension purposes. The farm property was donated in 1982 by E. Vreeland Baker, a retired independent investor in oil and gas exploration, to the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Baker grew up on the farm and attended Cornell, graduating in 1923. During his childhood, the Willsboro farm, then known as the Baker Farm, was used by his grandfather primarily as an apple orchard.

The Baker Research Farm is located at 48 Sayward Lane, Willsboro. For additional information, call 963-7492. 

Email Alvin Reiner:rondackrambler@yahoo.com