A Closer Look at the College of AGNR's Real World Laboratories

Wye Research and Education Center

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

August 26, 2013 Sara Gavin

NOTE: The most recent issue of MomentUM magazine focuses on projects and questions being tackled at the College of AGNR’s Research and Education Centers. Below is one of the featured stories. Click here to view the full online version of the magazine.

Can you tell when a cow’s in pain by monitoring her brain waves?

Do stink bugs trapped in a wine bottle taint the taste?

Why do fish in the Chesapeake Bay sometimes have both male and female organs?

How do you keep watermelons from wilting on the vine?

Questions like these and hundreds more like them generate the energy and passion that power the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ four Research and Education Centers.

Strategically positioned throughout Maryland’s diverse geographical terrain from the mountains in the west all the way to the lower sandy shore, the RECs are where science and methods developed in enclosed laboratories get put to the test under real-world, natural conditions.

The four RECs, comprised of eight facilities in total, are part of the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES). Under the direction of the Hatch Act of 1887, each state has an experiment station dedicated to improving agriculture and food production for its citizens. “I really admire our ancestors for their vision (in developing the Hatch Act),” says Adel Shirmohammadi, Ph.D., Associate Director of the MAES. Just as the Morrill Act of 1862 sought to make higher education accessible to all United States citizens, the Hatch Act “led to the democratization of innovation and research in areas of plant and animal production to serve the public,” says Shirmohammadi.

Today, Maryland’s RECs span more than 3,200 acres. In a state as physically small as Maryland, that might seem excessive to people not familiar with its contrasting landscapes, soil types and weather patterns.

“Even though we’re a small land mass state we do have that broad geographical variety” says Frank Allnutt who serves as director for three out of Maryland’s four RECs including Western Maryland, Central Maryland and the Lower Eastern Shore.  “The centers really serve as a mirror of the agricultural industry in Maryland which is so diverse compared to other states,” he says.


From the Mountains to the Ocean

For example, the Western Maryland Research and Education Center nestled in the foothills of the South Mountain range in Keedysville, is a prime spot for conducting studies on different varieties of fruit trees and grapes that thrive in hilly regions.

Meanwhile, the Central Maryland Research and Education Center consists of four facilities located in Clarksville, Beltsville, College Park and Upper Marlboro. Whether it’s supporting the state’s burgeoning turf grass industry or helping dairy farmers stay abreast of the latest techniques in animal husbandry and milk production, each facility serves a specific purpose.

Located just east of the Bay Bridge, the Wye Research and Education Center specializes in issues involving water quality, particularly related to the Chesapeake Bay. “The Wye is uniquely positioned at the land-sea interface,” says Russ Brinsfield (pictured left), Ph.D., who has served as director at the Wye REC since it was first established in 1982. “We can measure what’s leaving the field and getting into the Bay and therefore do more to protect the environment.”

Head down to the southern tip of Maryland along the Atlantic Ocean and you’ll find UMD faculty members like Kathryne Everts, Ph.D. (pictured right), at one of two facilities that make up the Lower Eastern Shore Research and Education Center working on solutions for problems plaguing fruit and vegetable producers in the region.

While each REC has a designated population and location to serve, the four centers together provide an opportunity for comparative research and collaboration. Figuring out which methods or practices don’t work can often be more important than discovering those that do.

“Wouldn’t you rather something failed here (at one of the RECs) than on your own farm?” says Allnutt. “Let the public university take the risk in trying new methods or practices.”

Translating Results into Impact

Cutting edge agricultural research has little impact, however, if results and findings can’t get into the hands of those who need it most: farmers and consumers. That is precisely why they’re called Research and Education Centers.

Workshops, seminars, training classes and tours are conducted by University of Maryland Extension personnel at all of the RECs and facilities in order to keep citizens informed and up to date with the latest practices or technologies being studied by UMD faculty.

“The intent is not to point the finger,” says Brinsfield. “We do the research and say this is causing the problem and here are some solutions. We want them to be informed when they make their decisions.”

Students are also a big part of the equation necessary for making the RECs operate efficiently, whether by collecting data for field studies or providing hands-on support to REC staff. Over the past two summers for instance, incoming freshman at the University of Maryland enrolled in the Scholars Program have participated in a service day at the Upper Marlboro facility in Central Maryland. Students are tasked with various chores such as measuring the height of corn at a demonstration plot or planting apple trees for the orchard.

Each October, the College of AGNR hosts an Open House at its Clarksville facility in Howard County – a free event chock full of family-friendly and educational activities that attracts thousands of residents from all over the state. The rolling hills of the 925-acre site and the clean, crisp autumn air serve as a reminder that the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is about much more than what goes on in a classroom or a laboratory.

“In many ways the Research and Education Centers are the face of the College in other areas of the state,” says Shirmohammadi. “They are extremely important to our land-grant mission.”

Read more about the College of AGNR’s Research and Education Centers in MomentUM.