Skip to main content

Kernza: Grain of The Future?

Our introductory lab meeting was the first time I had heard about Kernza. It was spoken of with such enthusiasm and excitement; however, I didn’t fully understand why. After working on our Kernza experiment and doing some research, I now emulate that same enthusiasm.

Kernza is a perennial grain that was developed by the land institute in Kansas. Like I’ve mentioned there has been tremendous excitement about the idea of a perennial grain. Since the grain is perennial, it can grow throughout the year with roots that can survive the winter. Other grains, for example, corn and wheat (annual crops), have to be planted each year. This is important because crops that are replanted each year often require more fertilizer and pesticide application. Also, in order for annual crops to be planted, the ground must be tilled. As I discussed in my last post, tillage is a damaging practice to soil health. Kernza does not require tillage because it doesn’t need to be replanted each year, therefore improving soil health. What is also unique about Kernza is the large root system it possesses. This allows kernza to better acclimate to changes in the environment. The larger root system also helps avert soil erosion which has become a huge issue in agriculture. Soil erosion also leads to the runoff of nitrogen into waterways which have caused events like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientist that developed Kernza also believe it can sequester carbon. I find this aspect to be very exciting because not only will Kernza be improving soil health, but it could also potentially help against global climate change.


Graphic comparing the root depths of Kernza and Wheat. Kernza is on the right and Wheat is on the left.


While this crop is very exciting there are still some kinks to work out. First, The grain produces a smaller yield than other grains which has some doubting its economic viability. Second, domesticated grains such as wheat have been bred to be shatterproof, meaning the seeds stay on the stem of the plant. As of now, Kernza still shatters leading to a potential decrease in yield. Lastly, the use of the grain is still being fine tuned.

Our lab is one of a few labs in the nation researching methods of Kernza management which makes this experiment extra exciting! There are two Kernza experiments currently taking place. The first experiment is analyzing amounts of fertilizer input, primarily nitrogen, to see how much fertilizer optimizes yield. On top of that, the Kernza will be harvested at different times during the season to see what times of harvest optimize yield. This type of experiment shows how Kernza really is in the early stages of development and implementation.

The other experiment investigating the potential benefits of Kernza in a polyculture with legumes such as clover. Since Kernza requires nitrogen inputs, this experiment aims to limit fertilizer inputs by planting legumes which fix nitrogen into the soil.

My role in the Kernza experiment has been cleaning up the field, more specifically deheading wheat that had reseeded in the field. The field that we are using for the Kernza was previously a wheat field. Some of the wheat wasn’t taken up by the harvester and reseeded. As a result, there is wheat throughout the kernza field. There was a good six days I and other members of the lab spent in the Kernza field cutting and removing wheat heads in hopes it won’t be able to reseed and not come back next year. This is somewhat of a “buzzkill” for such an amazing project and even though we’ve worked six days we still have half of the field to do.


A picture of the Kernza plot. Kernza is the bluish, slimmer, and taller stemmed plant. The wheat is the greener, thicker, and shorter stemmed plant.


The Other Side of the Food System: Selling at the Market


One of our permanent signs

My last month in Pennsylvania marked a transition from working on the farm to working with customers at the farmer’s markets.  I had been attending markets already once or twice a week, but they were small, and I usually had help. That changed though when the Scranton Co-op Market started in mid-July. This three day a week market runs for nine hours at a time, and has been open since 1939.    It’s a very established market and getting in was quite a feat.  I was given basically full control of how to manage this market, since I was to be the one working it, a task I did not take lightly.  And by the end of that month, I had learned a lot of dealing with customers.

The basic schedule of any farmer’s market is that you arrive a few hours before it opens to the public.  You set up your tent and your tables, unload your product, make signs, put out promotional materials, and wait for the sales to start.  QRS packs their product in large coolers, so customers don’t get a chance to casually view the inventory we have to sell, unlike a vegetable stand or a craft stand.  This is why making the sign is so important.  For most of the season, our signs were customized for each market on a white-board with dry erase markers.  We used various colors and boldness levels to emphasize certain products over others.  I learned how to organize information on a sign very well, as well as where to place the sign to get the attention of passersby.  Later in the season, the farm purchased permanent signs that listed all of our inventory, even if we didn’t have every product at that particular market.  For this reason, I kept using white-board signs in addition to the permanent signs.   Smaller signs are also good for advertising sales or specialty products.  When we had barn kittens that needed to be adopted out, we used smaller signs to communicate this to our customers.  You can get a lot of information across in few words if you’re practiced enough.


A sample of my signmaking

At any market, you’re going to be asked a lot of questions.  Some are out of valid curiosity: What does free range mean? Do brown eggs taste differently, or are they healthier, than white eggs? How do you use chicken feet? What do quail eggs taste like? Some are out of a desire to know the food better: Do you use antibiotics? How much time do your sheep spend outside? How fresh are these eggs? Do you feed your pigs GMO corn?  Then you have the strange questions:  Do you have live chickens in those coolers? Do you have to cut a chicken to get half a chicken? Do you sell rabbit eggs? And, my personal favorite, are you selling coffins for children? I suppose our white coolers may look a little bit sinister, but no farmer’s market I know of has coffin vendors.  A good market worker needs to be able to answer all these questions, to know the business and the philosophy inside and out to satisfy  curiosity and make the sale. I genuinely loved engaging with our customers.  When people came back saying how excellent our product was, I took it as a personal victory.  I enjoyed answering questions, taking orders for the future, showing off the product, and adding up the total, and I enjoyed watching the various people go about their business shopping for their meals.  Farmer’s markets are a delight.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was the amount of politics that goes on The white coolers can conveniently be used as benches toobehind the scenes.  I suppose like any group, the vendors of a market have disputes and tensions.  Some are resolved cordially, usually through a market manager or a vote, some not so cordially, and some are never resolved, but just simmer just under the surface, making enjoying the market a very difficult prospect.  All vendors are there for the same reason: to make money while helping the consumer eat fresh, local, and sustainable food. It’s a shame that such petty disagreements can destroy the sense of community in a market so easily.

On the whole, I had a fantastic time working at the markets.  It was probably my favorite part of my internship.  My market became a part of me, and it was really hard to leave it in the hands of someone else, even if they were my bosses. I met many great people, customers and fellow vendors alike, and I really hope I can work in a farmer’s market again someday in some manner, making people happy and advancing the movement.

Week 8: Long Island Produce for Sale!

Long Island growers use several methods to sell their produce. My surveying efforts have allowed me to identify these unique methods and their geographical associations. There are three primary models that growers use to sell their produce. The first and most common to Long Island growers is selling from a farm stand that is within the proximity of their farm. This method has virtually no transportation costs and gives consumers access to the freshest produce if they are willing to make the trip to the stand. Growers who use this method tend to have highly diversified farms where they grow everything and anything that a consumer might want. This sales method is present throughout essentially all of rural Long Island. The second method of sales is the use of distributors to serve Long Island supermarkets. With this method the distributor determines the price point of produce and makes weekly pickups from the grower. Unfortunately, distributors tend to pay less for crops than a consumer at a farm stand would. This sales method is especially prevalent on the North Fork where there are still many large potato farms and land is more readily available. The final sales method is farmers’ markets. A small minority of growers throughout Long Island but especially on the eastern tip of the North Fork truck their produce to western parts of Long Island to sell at farmers’ markets. Consumers at these markets are very willing to pay premiums for these fresh and local commodities. Using a distributor as a sales method was once a very common practice among Long Island growers, however as farmers recognize that other sales methods could be more lucrative they have been transitioning to other sales methods.


Planting, Pruning, and Research Challenges

Now that the garden manager, Marco, is back, I’ve had someone to work with more regularly and learn a lot about vegetable production. While Casa Caponetti was more focused on expanding its restaurant and B&B in the last couple years, they are hoping to increase production in the vegetable garden this fall in order to sell at a market in Rome. Since the growing season in this area is quite long, we have been doing a lot of transplanting and starting new seeds. I’ve also learned how to prune tomatoes (some were very overgrown) so that they have enough room to grow without becoming overcrowded, creating too much humidity.  We’ve planted peppers in the same rows as the tomatoes where there is extra space or a missing plant.

Crazy tomato jungle

Crazy tomato jungle

More tame tomato jungle

More tame tomato jungle

We are also starting a lot of seedlings for zucchini, fennel, green beans, and cucumbers. The seeds are started in soil blocks, which are made with a tool that sort of stamps out containers of potting soil into small square chunks. It gets really hot here during the day, so the seedlings are covered and kept in the shade until they sprout. Once leaves come up, we have to make sure they constantly get enough water until they’re planted in the ground.

Starting seedlings in soil blocks

Starting seedlings in soil blocks

When I’m not in the garden, I have also been working on an independent research project to test the effectiveness of a particular type of homemade olive fruit fly trap. Olive fruit flies (Bactrocera oleae) devastated the olive harvest for much of Europe in 2014. They oviposit into the olives as they are ripening, and the larvae hatch and live off of the fruit until they emerge as flies in the fall. The trap I’m examining was developed at an organic olive orchard in Spain and is called the OLIPE (short for Olivarera de los Pedroches) trap. It is made by melting holes around the neck of a plastic 1.5 L bottle and filling it with a solution of 1 L water and 3 Torula yeast tablets. These traps are known to work particularly well for combatting the olive fruit fly, but unfortunately I seem to have come at the wrong time of year to successfully test their effectiveness. The conditions have not been as favorable for the pest this year as they were in 2014, which is great for olive farmers, but a bit of a struggle for my research project. I have been having a hard time identifying them and am not sure if I have caught any at all yet. Luckily the garden manager would be able to continue collecting data for me after I leave, so I’ll see how things go in the next couple weeks. Wish me luck!

Attracting lots of ants, no olive flies yet

Attracting lots of ants, no olive flies yet

Field Trip in Nutrient Management Spear Program

I am Zhehan Tang and I’m a rising senior in agriculture science major. Luckily, I can spend my first summer abroad in Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program with Professor Quirine Ketterings, six undergraduate interns and other researchers.

Our team works on several different projects about nutrient management, for instance, some people do research about manure application, some focus on Greenseeker and NDVI, some work on corn stalk potassium study, etc. For me, I work on the project of double cropping winter cereal for forage after corn silage, and focus on the optimum nitrogen treatment of winter cereal.  Although we seven interns work for different projects, we are all willing to go to the field trip when someone need to do experiments in Aurora Research Farm or some other farms.

For me, averagely, I go to the field 2 days a week, and I always feel excited about the field trip, because born in a big city, I have never done so many experiments in the field, and almost doing everything in the field can be a new experience for me.

I remember that my first field trip was with Rachel, Issac and Aritotelis. We applied nitrogen fertilizer in the corn field for the entire afternoon. We have nine plots in that huge corn field, which I thought was the biggest corn field I have ever seen. Carrying bags of urea and walking through the field from plot to plot was a tiring but impressive experience. I felt like we were on a small boat in a green ocean, and when I walked across a line of tall corn, the leaves were just like green waves, and sometimes when I was in a low land, I couldn’t even see the edge of the field.


From then on, I have done several times of green house gas emission extraction in Aurora with Amir, who is a post-doctor in our group.


The picture above is the truck filled with the chambers, moisture meters, needles, tubes and other equipments that we use to do the green house gas extraction experiment.

IMG_5174Basically, we put chambers on the bases, which was fixed in the soil before. Then, we use clamps to make the gap between chamber and base small enough so that no gas will get out. Every two or one and a half minutes (depending on the field type), we use needles to extract the gas from the chambers and collect gas samples in small tubes. In the meantime, we need to measure soil temperature and soil moisture close to the chambers. I find that this is really a labor intensive and time consuming work, as one person can only manage an individual plot in an entire hour.

It’s true that these field works are all laborious, but maybe due to curiosity and novelty, I feel that field trips bring me a lot of fun.

Work Environment at Nutrient Management Spear Program

Hey all, I’m Dennis Atiyeh, an Agricultural and Animal Science major. I’d like to briefly talk about the first few weeks of my internship with Quirine Ketterings’ Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP).

To be honest, I never worked anywhere other than the family farm before this summer. All of my previous summers were spent at home working on the family farm with familiar faces and locations, so when I arrived for my first day of work at Morrison Hall, oh boy was I in for a surprise. Upon arrival, I saw no familiar faces. I had a butterfly effect of feelings. I only thought of how little experience I had in research and field work and how bad I would feel if for some reason I was to single-handedly destroy the NMSP.

But that has not happened. Yet.

From grinding soil to sampling alfalfa plants, there always seems to be something that needs to be done. There’s never a dull moment here at the NMSP. I manage to survive the work day and learn a tremendous amount from projects I partake in with NMSP.  Perhaps most importantly, I thoroughly enjoy being a part of the program because of the people around me.

I work with a bunch of great people whom we share many common interests, goals and humor. After a few weeks of work, I realized with some conversation and good laughs that I formed close bonds with everyone. Instead of hating myself for getting out of bed early each morning, I look forward to waking up to see everyone at the Nutrient Management Spear Program and making memories everyday.

Hanging out at the North American Manure Expo with Isaac Cornell (left) and Andrew LeFever (right). Behind us are dry manure spreaders performing demonstrations for the large crowd of people (Spoiler alert for my next blog...)

Hanging out at the North American Manure Expo in Chambersburg, Pa with Isaac Cornell (left) and Andrew Lefever (right). Behind us are dry manure spreaders performing demonstrations for the large crowd of people (Spoiler alert for my next post…)

Week 7: Scouting 101


A large Colorado Potato Beetle

I am in the full swing of things at LIHREC and the pests/diseases are too.  This past week I have seen the worst infestations of all crops thus far so I deemed it appropriate to share some scouting techniques and some of the most frequent pests we encounter. For all types of crops we make it a point to check sites in a random pattern and cover the entirety of the field (this means very long walks for some potato fields). We scout a variety of crops each with their own pests and diseases. At each scouting site we look at numerous plants and attempt to identify signs of disease or pests. The number of plants varies based on the crop. If we are unsure of the identification of any potential hazard, we bag a sample and bring it back to the research lab where a resident entomologist and pathologist are always willing to help. Upon completion of scouting a field we fill out a form for the grower indicating what we found and if any levels of disease or pest are over previously established thresholds. Explained below are some of the most common pests we see: Potato: Colorado Potato Beetle. Long Island Colorado Potato Beetles are especially notorious for their resistance (we are often asked to send samples of our beetles to other extension centers for insecticide research)

A large larvae Colorado Potato Beetle. The black marks on the leaf are its frass.

A versatile bacterial disease, bacterial leaf spot is pictured below infecting a raspberry leaf. This bacterial plight can be found on essentially every crop and is found in high levels after wet weather.

A common disease of peppers and tomatoes is Blossom End Rot abbreviate BER for scouting purposes. This is pictured below
In addition to peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes we are also trained to scout crucifers, sweet corn, eggplant, strawberries, and cucurbits.

Corporate Project: A Crash Course in Customer Relations & Test Markets

Vistive Gold infographic.

Vistive Gold infographic.

All Monsanto Field Sales interns have a corporate project to complete as the final portion of their internship. These range from agronomy to marketing to brand assessment to data collection, etc. My group of five young women from different universities was assigned to work with the Monsanto brand Vistive Gold. Before describing the project, a brief history of the product is essential to understanding the purpose.

Vistive soybeans were designed to be high-oleic, meaning a lower amount of trans fat and saturated fat with the primary intent of reduce hydrogenated oils used in cooking and the food industry, leading to a healthier overall product. However, the first phases of the product (Vistive I-III) either never made it to the market or were not found desirable by the producers, noting a considerable yield drag. After revamping the product, Monsanto came out with Vistive Gold. Before pushing growers to produce it in large quantities, the company needed to do research to see where it would logistically make the most sense to push production. This is where our group came it.

Assigned over eight hundred different seed dealers across Ohio and Illinois under national brands (Asgrow & Dekalb), my job for the first eight weeks of the summer was to call my given dealer network to understand the grain handling capacities of each business. If the business had an elevator or grain storage system with their seed facility, I would then ask them about the size of their storage and their ability to handle specialty grains, as Vistive Gold soybeans would have to be handled as such. All of this data was recorded into a program called Salesforce, which then could be digitally analyzed and mapped out to get an idea of the distances from shipping facilities to storage sites.

While this process seemed tedious at first, it went quickly after the first few weeks. Collecting the data could be done at any time, and I would often then enter the numbers into Salesforce at the end of the day when I got back to my apartment. Towards the middle of July I began the data analysis portion of the project, looking into different factors such as Monsanto sales percentage in the region as well as grain facility capacity, preferences, and transportation methods. All of this was written into a final presentation that would be given at the end of the summer to my advisor board as well as a special Vistive Gold team.

As much as calling seed dealers to survey them sounds simple, there was often complication in the process. Many times seed dealers just wouldn’t answer, or rarely I would call a seed dealer who would not want to answer my questions because they felt it was invasive even though they were still a part of the Monsanto network. I even had one particular person on the phone that became very verbally upset that information was none of my business. Those situations were often uncomfortable to deal with, but also not unmanageable. I usually patiently listened to what they had to say, apologized for the inconvenience, and thanked them for their time. As infrequently as these occurrences happened, they were still standout, and it really helped me to understand the importance of a personal connection in sales – even if it is just a survey. The overall project itself though gave me a new perspective on developing a product, looking at the importance of logistics before planning the marketing mix.

Collecting data and entering it into Salesforce.

Collecting data and entering it into Salesforce.

Week 6: Local Broccoli Coming Soon

This last week was just as enjoyable and informative as the previous ones. My surveys regarding the barriers to expanding the production of broccoli on Long Island have been returning promising results. The survey contains questions that address growers current  methods such as, “Have you ever raised broccoli in the past?” and “Do you currently use a distributor to reach wholesale or retail markets?”. It also contains additional questions to assess their willingness to expand their broccoli production. At the conclusion of my summer all the responses I collect will be inputed into Qualtrics and statistical analyses will allow us to determine the potential barriers to increasing broccoli production on Long Island. If the results are sufficiently promising then further work will be conducted next summer in hopes of expanding this project. As per the results I have collected thus far, it seems that this is quite likely. It is my hope that before long supermarket shelves on Long Island will be stocked with broccoli that boldly states “Grown Locally”,


Breaking Records – Abnormal Growing Season in Texas

Sprinklers irrigating juvenile corn.

Sprinklers irrigating juvenile corn.

Texas has gotten into the habit of record breaking during the past couple of years. A record drought is now being followed by record rainfall making a mess of operations on the farm. However farmers here in the Panhandle are certainly not complaining, as the water is certainly needed in order to replenish the aquifers in this region.

Despite the rainfall farmers have continued to irrigate their crops in order to provide a steady supply of water to the crops, especially corn. However the rainfall causes problems for the center pivots as the excess mud causes the to get stuck and break down. As a result I spent many days pulling these sprinklers out of the slippery clay mud and replacing the broken parts that move them along the 1.5 circumference of the circle.

Moving bales of Triticale.

Moving bales of Triticale.

The additional rainfall for the year also contributed to a welcomed surplus of feed provided by unusual regrowth by their winter tricale crop. The grass was swathed, raked and balled in order to store for a predicted return drought. As a result throughout the past two weeks I have moved nearly 700 round bales from the field helping me further develop my operating skills in the field.

Of course during the rainy days I have working on the mapping project they have assigned, obtaining well locations and determining where the water lines run throughout the field. This will be essential information when adding additional water lines, tilling the field and maintaining irrigation systems.

Spreading dry manure on wheat stubble to fertilize and reduce erosion.

Spreading dry manure on wheat stubble to fertilize and reduce erosion.

Skip to toolbar