What Crops Up

Wednesday, March 14, 2012
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It’s not every day that you find some dead man’s fingers in the woods. Like a macabre fist that’s punched through the earth and unfurled into a gruesome beckoning hand, Xylaria polymorpha is a fungus that grows throughout the deciduous forests of North America and Europe.  And this particular specimen may have gone entirely unnoticed tucked down along the edge of an old stump at the edge of a woodland footpath strewn with pine needles and fallow leaves at the Audubon Center in Concord . . .  were it not for Dr. Stuart Grandy.

As a New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) funded faculty member at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), soil biogeochemist Stuart Grandy presented his findings on soil nitrogen and mineralization to a room full of organic growers – and serious gardeners – attending the Managing Soils for Organic Agriculture seminar hosted, in part, by the UNH Cooperative Extension. “It’s a complex process, one that’s not easy to manage,” he said, emphasizing that “soils already contain a lot of nitrogen; we just need to better understand how to use it.”

During a brief break, he had the opportunity to get out and stroll the Audubon Center’s forested trails on an unusually warm and sunny March day. But shortly after he left, he burst back through the door and said, “You’ve got to see this – there’s some very charismatic fungi out here.” COLSA’s Professor of Plant Pathology Kirk Broders, also funded by the NHAES, followed close behind as Grandy led a group to the site of that old stump at the edge of the woodland path. A magnificent turkey tail fungus spread over the top of the decaying rostrum in concentric zones of amber and fawn. Upon closer inspection, downy hairs could be seen lining the thin and flexible fans.  And upon even closer inspection, the sepia-toned digits of the dead man’s fingers were discovered reaching skyward from the base of the stump.

Broders gently removed a portion of the specimen to examine under the dissecting scope at the lab, but first he was to present his seminar on soil-borne pathogens to the attendees at the Audubon Center. Back in the meeting room, he engaged the audience with humor even as he spoke about the importance of a systems approach to disease management to promote healthy microbial communities that are indigenous to the local soil. Among the participants were Gene Jonas, owner of Hungry Bear Farm, and Tom Mitchell, owner of Ledge Top Farm, who both came from Wilton for the day of informative sessions. “I’m here to learn about soil and how to use it properly to grow great crops,” said Jonas who grows nearly forty varieties of organic produce for local markets and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

“In organic agriculture, soil is the heart of everything,” said Mitchell, who specializes in growing quality small fruits and vegetables on which no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used. Jonas echoed the sentiment by saying, “Soil is the foundation.” They and many other participants at the seminar shared information and asked questions of Broders, Grandy, and Grandy’s graduate student – mid-stream Ph.D. student and soil biogeochemist – Cynthia Kallenbach, who presented her own work on mycorrhizae and discussed the management of the agroecosystem by controlling such methods as pushing back peak nitrogen uptake with crop demand.

“Cynthia’s research is very fundamental, but she likes to connect with growers as well,” said Grandy of their shared interest in giving talks to growers. About the valuable opportunity for graduate students to present their research findings, Grandy says “Doing a dozen or so of these talks will be a real feather in their caps as they go forward, looking for faculty positions.”

Having a direct connection with the growers also informs Grandy’s research foci.  “It’s important to do research that’s not only high profile in the scientific community, but also gives traction to the people who are farming the land,” said Grandy, “and it’s important to present your data to a grower group so they don’t just see it as something abstract.” The audience was fully engaged and had questions ranging from the cost analysis of supplemental nitrogen to how to interpret a cation exchange capacity (CEC) result on their soil tests.

“I get great ideas for new research based on people’s needs,” said Grandy who also enjoys networking with others for potential USDA-grant funded collaborations. And sometimes there are added, intangible perks like a stroll in the woods and the chance to encounter some distinctive fungi along the way.