UD officials tour through remodeled Lasher lab

Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. (Dec. 16, 2014) — Many people associate the word “agriculture” with an image of a farmer in muddy boots, wearing a straw hat and driving a pickup.
Agriculture today is much more than that, and the University of Delaware is preparing its graduates to participate in offering solutions to the world’s toughest problems.
One of those challenges is providing enough food to sustain the world’s population, which is quickly approaching nine billion.
University President Pat Harker and Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, were in Sussex County Nov. 25 to share with The Delmarva Farmer insights into what’s new at the university.
Harker and Rieger took time to peek through the windows of the Lasher Laboratory at the Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown, which is to re-open this month after major renovations. An official opening ceremony will be held in the spring.
He said the Lasher Lab now rivals the Allen Lab at the university in Newark. It is a Biosafety Level 3 lab, with negative air pressure, an air lock, and a “shower-in, shower-out requirement.” Air is filtered and incinerated.
Rieger said, “We are very appreciative that the state of Delaware realizes the importance of this lab and provides funding. This is way beyond what they have in Salisbury.”
“This will be the ‘go-to’ place. If there is an outbreak of avian influenza,” he continued, “this is where the research will be done. We can do it all right here.” The updated Lasher Lab will work in concert with the Allen Lab in Newark.
Also on the Thurman Adams Agriculture Research Farm in Georgetown, experiments are being conducted using switchgrass as poultry litter.
The deep roots of switchgrass are seen as an ecological benefit.
The crop is being harvested, dried and chopped to see if it will work in poultry houses.
If successful, this would provide an alternative use for switchgrass grown for cellulosic ethanol.
Rieger was quick to point out that the college he heads is not just the ag school but the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and that agriculture is more than poultry.
Much of the college’s work is on water quality issues and wildlife conservation, Rieger said. “We may be small, but we’re diverse,” he added.
The university is studying irrigation at the Warrington Irrigation Research Farm near Harbeson.
Students at the newly opened Center for Experiential Economics are studying, among other things, whether consumers are willing to pay more for oysters from Delaware Bay as they realize the value of the bivalves to the ecosystem.
Graduate students are working at Mt. Cuba with Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” in ecological horticulture, looking at which plants are better for bugs.
Mt. Cuba’s mission is conservation of native plants in the Piedmont area.
“We don’t want Mt. Cuba to be the best-kept secret,” Rieger said.
Students are making presentations at meetings to raise the level of awareness about the importance of using native plants in the landscape.
“Growers are interested in the research,” Rieger added. “All the retailers want the newest plants.”
At the university’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, education is being combined with business and research.
The 272-acre property, a former auto assembly plant, is home to the university’s Health Sciences Complex and its “eV2g” project with NRG Energy Inc. in which electric cars’ batteries are essentially being used as short-term ministorage for excess electricity.
Also operating at the STAR campus is California-based Bloom Energy’s East Coast fuel cell manufacturing center.
There’s a group that want to do aquaponics (raise fish and plants) there, as well as an ag biotech company that makes quick diagnostic strips for such things as detecting bacteria in food.
Harker stressed, “We’re not in real estate. There is a ‘litmus test.’ Businesses must be open to faculty and student experiences.”
Some enterprises are spinouts from the university or involve university alumni.
The university is working with employers to prepare students to fill jobs in the future, and is changing the curriculum to meet the skill sets needed.
Rieger said the human resources departments of companies are worried because one-third of their workforce will be retiring soon. CANR instituted a class in “Understanding Delaware Agriculture,” taught by Dr. Mark Isaacs, to attract undecided Associate of Arts Degree students into agricultural fields. Students have been touring the state looking at different career choices available in agriculture.
The university is also participating in a regional “climate hub” based in Durham, N.H., and being set up as a new investment in the Farm Bill for the purpose of helping farmers and ranchers take steps to “mitigate the impacts and effects of climate change as well as adapt to new ways of agriculture,” as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described it.
The climate hub will be rolled out during Delaware Ag Week on Thursday, Jan. 15, in a session entitled “Weathering These Changing Times.”