Late summer veggie tours highlight a productive partnership

MSU Extension programs help growers determine suitable vegetable varieties for Michigan conditions, fight pests and acquire new tools for growing productive vegetables.

The partnership between Michigan’s agricultural industry and Michigan State University is strong and reaping benefits for western Michigan vegetable growers. This partnership helps growers learn which vegetable varieties are suitable for Michigan conditions, keep the industry’s pest management toolbox diverse and effective, learn about new tools and train Extension staff members to serve our growers. Three recent events highlighting this university-industry partnership are the onion twilight meeting, the Oceana research tour and the Michigan State University Extension summer vegetable tour.

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MSU Extension staff members join others in learning about how celery is harvested to ensure a safe and fresh product.

Evaluating the suitability of vegetable varieties for Michigan conditions is especially important for low-acreage, high-value specialty crops such as asparagus and onions. For example, the Oceana research tour highlighted asparagus variety trials that are conducted in the middle of asparagus country, all on a farm funded by industry dollars and used by industry and MSU staff members for research. Similarly, the onion twilight tour gave growers a chance to visit on-farm variety trials and judge the maturity and quality of onion varieties on both muck and mineral soils. Both these efforts involve industry groups and funding, contribution of promising varieties by seed companies and breeders, and collaboration with Michigan State University.

These tours also featured research by MSU faculty members on pest management options, helping growers adapt to changes that could make older chemistries ineffective or difficult to obtain. For example, at the Oceana research tour, MSU Extension specialist Mary Hausbeck showcased trials of alternative fungicides for control of key carrot and asparagus diseases. In both crops, chlorothalonil forms the foundation of effective disease prevention. If this product became limited, growers would be left with few alternative options unless new products are identified and registered through IR-4. Hausbeck’s work will help keep the industry prepared for potential challenges. At the Oceana research and onion twilight tours, MSU Extension specialist Bernard Zandstra discussed herbicide trials that will help get new products registered for weed control. This is critical because there are problem weeds in both asparagus and onions that are becoming difficult to control with existing products.

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MSU Extension specialist Bernard Zandstra discusses asparagus herbicide trials with industry members.

In addition to addressing needs for new tools, the industry-university partnership also helps growers make cost-effective use of existing tools and learn basic information about the ecology of their production systems. For example, at the onion tour, MSU professor Zsofia Szendrei discussed research that evaluated lower cost surfactants for use in onion thrips control programs. These surfactants are critical to use of a key but very costly insecticide, which her research shows can provide extended early-season control. Finding these lower cost alternatives will help keep use of this product viable in an era of uncertain profit margins. At the Oceana tour, Szendrei and graduate student Adam Ingrao also discussed his research, which uses eyes on the ground and CSI-type molecular tools to determine which species of beneficial insects are preying on asparagus pests. This work has potential to facilitate incorporation of natural pest control into asparagus production. Identification of key parasites and predators could help growers target management to provide these species the resources they need to survive. As another example, at the Oceana tour, MSU Extension specialist Dan Brainard’s graduate student, Corey Noyes, discussed use of a relatively new formulation of slow-release nitrogen. Their work suggests that environmentally smart nitrogen (ESN), a polymer-coated urea, can support the same yields as conventional fertilizers with fewer applications.

The MSU summer vegetable tour also demonstrated how vegetable growers educate faculty and Extension staff members about issues and technology important to them. At the most recent tour, held in southwestern Michigan, Extension staff members interacted with growers from several types of operations, each with his/her own insights. One stop allowed attendees to hear firsthand how new mobile phone technology is helping manage labor. Another stop highlighted a farm adept at finding and even creating niche markets for edible and ornamental vegetables, showing how being a flexible entrepreneur can help sustain farm income. Other stops featured small-scale production for organic markets, creative on-farm engineering to produce harvest aids, hand harvesting of celery, new products from a Michigan-based leader in ag irrigation systems, and a variety of research efforts at the MSU Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center. These tours are an example of vegetable growers as active teachers whose partnership is not only beneficial but crucial to helping MSU staff members meet the needs of the industry as a whole.

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Onion industry members learn about new varieties at a past onion twilight tour.

In the face of changing agricultural markets and fluctuating funding for universities, the Michigan vegetable industry and Michigan State University are engaged in an active partnership that will help keep the state’s agricultural economy strong. This is evident in the list of partners who helped make our recent research tours possible: vegetable growers, industry commodity groups, seed companies, plant breeders, chemical and irrigation company representatives, and MSU graduate students and faculty and Extension staff members. All these players bring diverse backgrounds and experience to the table that will help researchers address grower needs and keep Michigan’s diverse ag economy strong, and ensure that the vision of the founders of MSU is still alive and strong a century and a half after its founding.

This story was originally published in the Michigan Farmer Magazine. 

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