This is usually the busy season for agricultural scientists.
They are hammering out experiment plans, firing up tractors and heading to fields to plant research plots on crops, weed control, diseases, insects and more.
But Michigan State University Extension entomologist Chris DiFonzo’s recent trips into the office this past week have had a very different mission.
“The local hospitals are already low on supplies, so there was a call to labs on campus for protective equipment that will just sit unused when the university is closed,” DiFonzo explained. “I’m emptying the lab of gloves, spray suits and anything else that can be used.”
Like so many, university ag researchers are being forced to set aside research and re-evaluate what is “essential” as the nation enters its third week of state-by-state lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, including universities restricting campus access and sending students home.
Each year, Extension and university scientists run lab and field experiments to benefit farmers. They test new traits, fine-tune pesticide applications, analyze new crop pests and scrutinize a host of farm management tactics for profitability and efficacy.
The timing of the new coronavirus outbreak and university shutdowns is especially challenging for these scientists, given that the spring planting season is looming, and with it, the start of countless field experiments.
Depending on how long university shutdowns persist — and how severe restrictions on movement become — an incalculable amount of money and knowledge could be lost this year, scientists told DTN.
“We’re talking about the very real potential to lose a year’s worth of research for some crops, depending on whether this situation improves or worsens in the next few weeks,” said Jason Norsworthy, an Extension weed scientist at the University of Arkansas.
FEWER STUDENTS MEANS FEWER WORKERS
Norsworthy has weeds actively growing in greenhouses that need regular tending. But when the University of Arkansas ordered its students not to return after spring break, the university’s scientists lost much of their labor pool.
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Undergraduate students commonly assist researchers with lab work; they fill and wash pots, measure plants, count seeds and do other basic tasks of crop research.
“I had 10 hourly student workers, at 10 or more hours a week each,” Norsworthy explained. “So I just lost 100 to 150 hours of manpower during the week.”
Faculty scientists and the graduate students that remain on many campuses will have to take on as much work as university restrictions and time allows, scientists said.
“It will be extremely hard on the skeleton crews that remain,” said Bryan Young, a weed scientist at Purdue University.” After Indiana’s “shelter in place” state order goes into effect today, only two employees will be permitted to tend to his greenhouse projects underway on campus, down from 10, he said.
Universities are working in real-time to try to figure out how to keep the most essential research running, while also protecting their students and employees, said Anne Dorrance, a plant pathologist and associate dean and director of Ohio State University’s Wooster Campus.
The state of Ohio is also under a two-week “shelter in place” directive, and the OSU faculty and students are working from home.
Only a barebones crew of maintenance workers, security, and people tending animals, rare plant germplasm or critical medical research remain, Dorrance explained. Researchers have stopped initiating new experiments at this point, but some are still planning for the field season as they wait to see the full extent of the pandemic’s effects in the U.S., she said.
“It feels like waiting for a tidal wave,” she said. “We know it’s coming, but we don’t know how high it is going to get. So if a tidal wave is coming, why would you plant something rare right now? Moving forward, we’re going to have to assess which experiments should just wait.”
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS AND DELAYS COMPROMISE STATEWIDE RESEARCH
Norsworthy is based at the University of Arkansas’s agricultural campus in the northwestern city of Fayetteville. But every year, up to 80% of the field research he conducts on cotton, corn, soybeans and rice is located at university research centers in eastern Arkansas.
To tend to those fields, he usually takes trips with six to seven graduate students across the state, staying at hotels and spending multiple days working there. Now, with the CDC limiting gatherings of 10 or more people, and hotels around the country laying off workers and closing, the possibility of statewide travel is suddenly uncertain, Norsworthy noted.
“We don’t know if we can even do research in eastern Arkansas this year,” he said.
The best-case scenario for agricultural researchers is that travel and university restrictions will ease up after a certain number of weeks or months, and experiments will be able to go into the ground later than normal, some scientists said.
“But it’s getting pretty late — we’re only two weeks from planting,” Norsworthy noted. “If this lasts eight weeks, we’re looking at planting six weeks late.”
A small silver lining from the flooding and rainfall of spring 2019 is that many Midwestern and southern researchers now have some experience here, Dorrance noted.
“We lived through an extremely late planting season last year,” she said. “We know now that we can plant later than we originally thought, and still get some good data.”
But fieldwork delays could doom other research, such as DiFonzo’s work sampling soil grub populations before and after planting, which is about to get underway in Michigan. And for experiments that rely on testing time-sensitive work, such as herbicide applications, long delays could compromise any results, added Purdue’s Young.
“From a weed science research standpoint, anything we do would have to have an asterisk attached to it and have less meaning,” he said.
“We are not at full capacity and some research will be delayed, with some greenhouse and lab research likely not to resume until after the field season in the fall,” Young concluded.
THE QUESTION OF FUNDING
Some university lab and fieldwork is funded by federal or state grants or industry contracts, and scientists will have some financial untangling to do in the weeks ahead, as they sort out what work can and cannot get done.
USDA has already issued extensions for many of its National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grants, pushing deadlines deeper into April to give researchers time to re-adjust their work plans and staffing options.
Work that is already funded is more complicated, Norsworthy noted. “I have a quarter million dollars of research sitting in the greenhouse [and growth chambers],” he noted. “Walking away from that puts me in a major bind.”
DiFonzo is optimistic that universities and state and federal government will step up and help scientists and their students manage lost research and funding in the year to come.
“Everyone is in the same boat right now,” she said. “I have faith that funding agencies and universities will push deadlines back and allow extraordinary things to happen — like finding a way to fund students who may need an extra year to graduate. Because these are extraordinary times.”
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
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