In Our Spotlight
Research, Fieldwork, Scholarship
With the inauguration of its innovative Extension faculty positions, the Center for Agriculture is further bridging the gap between lab, classroom, and field. Eight professors join the cadre this year, bringing the current total of Extension faculty members to 14 and adding weight to UMass Amherst’s capacity to bring research-based solutions to critical real-world problems in fields such as green building, food production, and ecosystem management.
“These new Extension faculty positions will enable us to bring our research to a broader scope of people,” says Amanda Kinchla, head of Extension’s recently launched food science program. Kinchla joins the faculty with 15 years of private sector experience under her belt, primarily in research and development for major companies including ConAgra and Kraft Foods.
“I’m currently networking with as many people in the industry as I can to see where I can make the biggest impact, so I can create projects that deliver those outcomes,” says Kinchla. “I’m eager to discover ways to take research and expand it so it’s ready to be used sooner, so industry leaders can take it and run.”
To complement her work in product development, Kinchla will be using her background in microbiology to help bring quality control practices to resource-limited small farms in order to minimize the risk of pathogen spread. “What tools can we share with farmers to measure pH or chlorine levels, for example, that are user-friendly, financially viable, and will motivate farmers to change?” she asks. As local food movements continue to grow, Kinchla is also aiming to bring better food safety practices to farmers markets, which are currently loosely regulated.
Kinchla is looking forward to leading workshops for food industry professionals and to translating her work experience into undergraduate and graduate-level classrooms. “I think it will be very powerful to use real-world examples of why the information students are learning today is important to their future,” she says. “If we can further expand that knowledge base, who knows what we can be capable of?”
Similarly, soil scientist John Spargo joins the Extension faculty with a practical aim to utilize his research and field skills to address both agronomic efficiency and environmental concerns. One of his initial aims is to distill the most current scientific literature and research into information that can help farmers, homeowners, and professionals “understand the ramifications of the practices they use and inform their decisions, whether they’re managing the turf in their backyard or a thousand-acre cornfield, and everything in between,” he says.
Specifically, Spargo is working on projects that will help growers maximize nitrogen efficiency, a particular concern in organic farming, where the use of manure—the most convenient and efficacious form of fertilizer—can lead to a buildup of excess phosphorous, a potent source of water pollution. Spargo and his team are currently looking into alternatives to conventional fertilizers, including cereal and legume cover crops such as hairy vetch, which fix nitrogen in their roots and can be used over the winter to promote growth in the spring.
Helping growers strike a balance between effectiveness and cost is a big part of Spargo’s concern, and a natural outgrowth of his background designing and executing relevant on-farm research at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “As a researcher, it’s nice to do work that is going to have a direct effect on people’s lives,” says Spargo. “Three years from now I’ll be able to tell you the optimal seeding rate for hairy vetch in this region. Right now you’d have to look at a book from 20 years ago, and that information just isn’t realistic to today’s practices.”
Like Professor Kinchla, Spargo is committed to helping students develop and understand tangible applications for the knowledge they’re gaining in the classroom. “In two to three years, most of my students will be out there practicing this work in the field,” he says. “They’ll be our clients. It’s important for them to know how to use this information in their future endeavors.”
It’s all part of the collaborative expertise Spargo has gained, whether he’s working on the national level with scientists to reduce environmental losses or with farmer-collaborators to develop more effective practices in integrated weed management. “The people I’m working with aren’t just interested in soil fertility as a science,” he says. “They also want to know how to manage turf and grow food.”
In fact, cooperative methodologies such as these—whether among academic disciplines or between diverse stakeholders—are the heart of Extension. “You can’t manage nitrogen without considering plant nutrition, or soil erosion, or weather,” says Spargo. “Through my work with large collaborative teams, I’ve come away with the ability to see things as part of a system. None of this happens in a vacuum.”
Spargo and Kinchla join a team of diverse scientists based at the Center for Agriculture in conjunction with the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Cranberry Station, and the UMass Amherst Departments of Environmental Conservation and Geosciences. Extension faculty bring with them research skills and hands-on expertise in disciplines including plant pathology, integrated pest management, world crops, forest conservation, livestock management, soil health and fertility, biodiversity, and environmental physiology. Working together with agribusinesses and individual farmers throughout the state, the faculty of the Center for Agriculture develop effective, sustainable practices while providing leading-edge education and training to a new generation of agronomists, food scientists, and agricultural professionals.