Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems


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SAEA 2012 Camas Country Mill, Willamette Valley, OR

During the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Education Association meeting, we got to tour a local grain mill. They serve bakeries in Portland and Seattle with regionally grown grain flours including wheat, teff and rye. The family that started the mill was in the grass seed business, which is huge in the Willamette Valley. With the 2008 recession, the grass seed business took a hit everywhere and the family worked on transitioning their business to focus on: food for humans (grains), food for animals (forage) and food for the soil (cover crops).

Apologies for the background noise, the mill was running!


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Vermicompost research and green business development in New York

For any of you who were wondering what kinds of projects I was involved in before coming to work at Prescott College, I can pretty much sum it up as this, “All vermicompost, all the time!” My mom started it all by making one of my childhood chores helping with our home composting pile and getting me my first worm bin in 2000. My dad bought me a microscope at the De Anza Flea Market for my eighth birthday and the rest, as they say, is history. I will admit it has been a bit of an obsession, but my interest in vermicompost has led me into explorations of microbial ecology that have satisfied some of my curiosity and adventures in industry – university partnerships that have shaped who I am as a scientist.

Enjoying a deluge of black gold at the Worm Power facility

Enjoying a deluge of black gold at the Worm Power facility

I first met Tom Herlihy at a US Composting Council conference in Las Vegas, NV in 2003. We were introduced by Scott Subler, then a vermicomposter and now president of Environmental Credit Corp. I gave a talk entitled “Microbial ecology of vermicompost and compost teas” based on the literature review I was working on for my Master’s research in the Thies Lab at Cornell. At the time Tom was working as an agricultural engineer in North Carolina, but he soon moved to Western New York to start his vermicomposting company, Worm Power. I had the chance to work with some of the first batches of dairy manure vermicompost that came out of his facility for a project on the rhizosphere microbial ecology of organic tomato production in collaboration with the Rangarajan group in the Department of Horticulture.

After finishing my MS, I joined the Nelson lab in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell and worked with Worm Power vermicompost for the duration of my dissertation research. I wanted to understand how the microorganisms present in vermicomposted dairy manure  protected plants from disease. Here’s a video overview of the project from our outreach page:

In 2010 the Worm Power facility was visited by the then head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Dr. Roger Beachy, who made official remarks on behalf of the Secretary of Agriculture and posted about his visit in the USDA blog. A majority of our research funding had come from the USDA Small Business Innovation Research program. At this point in the project it was great to see how my research in plant pathology could help support the development of a new business in the field of sustainable agriculture.

“My agency is responsible for providing research grants in the area of food and agriculture as an opportunity to take technology and make it useful in the economy. So Tom’s one of the stars. We’re very pleased to be here today to see the end product. It’s a commentary I think on innovation and creativity from people like Tom, and I’m very pleased to see the connection to the academic institutions around. It’s that link between academic knowledge generated at universities and those who know how to use that information to create products that the American public can use which makes the investment by the taxpayer in the research actually pay back to the community. After all, that’s our responsibility as scientists. My responsibility at the agency is to create an atmosphere that combines researchers together. Then having people like Tom use the outcomes of that research makes it all worthwhile. Tom, we are very pleased with enterprises like yours and this one which serves the on farm community and off farm activities is special. I think it would be great if would join me to thank Tom and all of you who led in this success. I know there’s state money here, I know there’s VC money here, there’s angel money. It takes all sorts of funding. We’re very pleased to help kick it off, but you have made it work in the end, so thank you very much.” – Dr. Roger Beachy

We got some great news coverage of the open house; Cornell Chronicle, Cornell Daily Sun, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and WXII, Rochester’s PBS station. All of the science communication trainings I attended over the years really helped me learn how to talk with reporters, a skill I’m still working on.

Our outreach video won a couple of science communication prizes, so I reinvested the prize money (or what was left of it after funding some serious Nelson lab sushi eating at ISME 13 in Seattle!) into editing some of the old VHS video microscopy footage I had taken as a TA for Soil Ecology as a teaching tool to share with other educators.

I’ve also presented our findings at several grower meetings over the years, most recently at NOFA-NY Winter 2012.

A quick “Where are they now?”

L to R, Eric Carr - MS Plant Pathology, Tom Herlihy - Worm Power, Susi Varvayanis - Business Development Officer at Cornell University Institute of Biotechnology, Eric Nelson - Professor Plant Pathology & Allison Jack PhD Plant Pathology

L to R, Eric Carr – MS Plant Pathology, Tom Herlihy – Worm Power, Susi Varvayanis – Business Development Officer at Cornell University Institute of Biotechnology, Eric Nelson – Professor Plant Pathology & Allison Jack PhD Plant Pathology hanging out after my department exit seminar

Our project was highlighted in the New York Times today along with other vermicomposting businesses and researchers.

Tom Herlihy just finalized a business deal with Worm Power that made it to the front page of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Eric Carr, a fellow graduate student in the Nelson Lab is working at Laguna Blanca, a sustainable agriculture project in Argentina and running their composting and vermicomposting facilities with his wife Jamie.

Eric Nelson continues to run his research program on oomycete – plant interactions in agroecosystems and wetlands at Cornell.

Insights International, our videographer collaborators, are working on a film on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, along with other projects.

Jean Bonhotal is now the Director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute where she works on livestock mortality composting and other projects.

Anu Rangarajan continues to direct the Cornell Small Farms Program.

Monica Minson, an undergraduate researcher on the project, rode her bike across the country, got her M.Ed. at Stanford and is teaching high school biology.

Hillary Davis, an undergraduate researcher on the project, is now at the Tulane University School of Medicine.

And of course I’m the agroecology faculty member at Prescott College and Director of Jenner Farm.

Training the next generation of vermicompost researchers!

Training the next generation of vermicompost researchers!

With Tom Herlihy at Worm Power

With Tom Herlihy at Worm Power

With Eric Nelson at my "mugging". The department gives you a mug and a cake (no robbery involved).

With Eric Nelson at my “mugging”. The department gives you a mug and a cake (no robbery involved).

Monica processing samples in the growth chamber

Monica processing samples in the growth chamber

Hilary and I goofing around in the greenhouse lab while taking electrical conductivity measurements on non-aerated vermicompost extracts.

Hillary and I goofing around in the greenhouse lab while taking dissolved oxygen measurements on non-aerated vermicompost extracts.

Before my position officially started this summer, I was working on my dissertation revisions in the Prescott College library. A student approached me, remembered my interview talk about my research and said she wanted to work with vermicomposting for her senior project. That student of course was Eleanore Nelson, who just received the first BS in Environmental Studies degree in the history of the college and was recognized for her senior project (on vermicompost of course!) through an invitation to present at the Baccalaureate event. I was very honored to “give her away” at Commencement a few weeks back.

With Eleanore at Prescott College commencement Winter 2012

With Eleanore at Prescott College commencement Winter 2012

Note 5-18-2013

Interested in learning more about vermicomposting? Join me and a great group of hobby and professional vermicomposters on a ning social media platform dedicated to sharing information about small scale vermicomposting and on the vermicompost subgroup of the compost discussion group on LinkedIn.