May 10, 2011

New director of experiment station's ag operations focuses on sustainability

As the new director of agricultural operations for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES) headquartered on the Ithaca campus, Glenn Evans '03, M.S. '07, Ph.D. '10, is first getting a handle on the 155,000 square feet of greenhouse space; hundreds of pieces of equipment; 2,100 acres of crop and forestland; 130 growth chambers; and 45 staff members.

His next step: to filter that data to inform the systemwide decisions he is poised to make for the most efficient use of resources. Perhaps the most important obligation Evans and his colleagues shoulder is the search for sustainability.

Sustainability starts at ground level, with maintaining and improving healthy soils that retain nutrient and carbon-holding capacity, limit erosion and help boost a crop's capacity to shrug off pests.

But ground-level sustainability also means adapting buildings and tools to fit into a framework that, over the next four decades, will make Cornell a "net-zero" university. Cornell has a plan in place to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest extent possible -- then compensate for those inevitable emissions that remain. Since both greenhouses and farming tend to be energy-intensive operations, Evans' work holds a critical place in that plan.

"Glenn is the guy on the ground for much of what we seek to accomplish here at Cornell's Ithaca-based CUAES," says Michael Hoffmann, the station's director. "He's got the knowledge, the skill and the drive, all grounded in a strong social, economic and environmental sustainability ethic."

Evans grew up on a small family farm. He started his own greenhouse and cut-flower business while a teenager, continuing it the first two summers he was an undergrad at Cornell. He had research plots at Cornell's Homer C. Thompson Research Farm and greenhouse space at the Guterman complex adjacent to campus as he focused on sustainable ag practices to complete his Ph.D. dissertation in the field of horticulture.

CUAES farm staff, Evans notes Evans, juggle scores of research projects with widely varying specs for how the soil, the crops -- and even the pests -- are cared for, from planting through harvest and beyond. The goal: to support Cornell's research community in teasing apart the interwoven yet ever-changing elements that make for healthy farms and a healthy economy.

"Farm staff have way more obligations per acre than you'd have on 100 acres of production crops," Evans says. Add in the classes that visit these farms for hands-on learning; the field trips and field days; and simply listening to researchers -- "these staff are people-focused," says Evans. "It makes a world of difference."

Likewise, greenhouse workers support research that's constantly in flux. New researchers come in every semester; every day new experiments begin. One greenhouse unit might have 7-foot-tall corn; the next, hundreds of tiny transplants for field trials. The staff watch over the vast mechanical and electrical systems that regulate heat and lighting needs, patrol for pests, and water and fertilize as needed.

Since starting just a month ago, Evans has already traveled to CUAES's farthest farm outposts -- Long Island and Willsboro in the North Country. At every stop, he has been struck by the staffs' dedication. "That, and their flexibility and focus on service," he says.

Given the hours and the responsibility, what attracted Evans to this position?

"The challenge," Evans says. "The chance to do good work."

Mary Woodsen is a science writer with the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.