Open house planned for agriculture research station

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Tue., Jun. 7, 2011
Robert Durgy adjusts the weather station for monitoring grapevines' growing conditions at Griswold's state agricultural experiment station. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Robert Durgy adjusts the weather station for monitoring grapevines' growing conditions at Griswold's state agricultural experiment station. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The science that could help wineries grow grapes with less spraying for pests, or help farmers produce more sweet corn per acre, is happening on a quiet 26-acre plot on Sheldon Road.

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, at the site of the former state forest nursery, may even prove key to the future re-introduction of the long-vanished chestnut tree to the state’s forests.

A row of chestnut saplings waving in the summer wind represents a mix of the original American chestnut with a Chinese variety, said farm manager Robert Durgy. The Asian strain is resistant to the chestnut blight that swept the stately native trees from the American landscape a century ago.

The tall native chestnuts were ideal for lumber, said Durgy, but the Asian trees grow to less than one-third that height. These hybrids have already been selected for their greater height.

“This is kind of the culmination of the project. We’re really screening these out,” Durgy explained. The saplings are observed for how early they leaf out; too-early leafing may make them susceptible to frost damage and thus unsuitable for Connecticut’s climate. “We’re looking for the ones that can kind of live on their own. We don’t want to treat them too, too nicely,” he said.

The ultimate hope is that the project will produce hardy chestnut seeds that can be planted in public and private forests, he said.

In another plot, a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption towers over a vineyard. Durgy explained that it’s a weather station, measuring such elements as rainfall, cloud cover, wind direction and leaf wetness. Getting in synch with the vineyard’s local micro-climate may enable farmers to reduce spraying for pests or disease, based on whether conditions are optimal for infestation.

“Currently [spraying] is run by the calendar. Every 10 days they spray, whether it’s needed or not,” he said. “This way, it’s actually telling you yes or no.” Less spraying translates into lower growing costs, as well as lower environmental impact.

Other projects at the station involve researching alternatives to conventional pesticides for peach bacterial leaf spot; non-chemical controls for asparagus diseases; and prime density of plants for optimum sweet corn production. There’s even work going on to monitor native bees to determine which ones are the prime local pollinators.

Durgy said that the station in Griswold is part of the country’s first state agricultural experiment station, established in New Haven in 1875. While not connected with the University of Connecticut, it collaborates with UConn in research, he said. Actually, the state agricultural station pre-dates the founding of UConn, the state’s agricultural land-grant university, in 1881.

The local site opened in 2008, four years after the state forest nursery closed. Since then, the nursery fields have been slowly cleared for the station’s experimental growing plots.

The station, located at 190 Sheldon Road, in Griswold, is planning an open house for Thursday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors will be offered tours of the fields, a look at a hive of live honeybees, and a chance to talk to scientists about their research projects. There will also be an opportunity to ask questions about gardening problems and learn about invasive species and insect pests. The event is free and refreshments will be served.

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