March: What’s happening on the farm?

by | Mar 17, 2014

Seeding line at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.

Seeding line at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Each month we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Oxford Tobacco Research Station in Granville County.

The Oxford Tobacco Research Station was established in 1912, and historically this station has mostly focused on flue-cured tobacco. Research at the station has led to the development of varieties of tobacco resistant to Black Shank and Granville Wilt, considered two of the most destructive diseases in tobacco crops. The first flue-cured rack tobacco barn and curing boxes were also developed at the station. Also located at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station is the N.C. Bioenergy Research Initiative, which is dedicated to research of biomass used as fuel or feedstock. Research station staff help support this initiative through facilities such as greenhouses and land for growing a variety of crops such as switchgrass, sweet sorghum and canola.

Floating trays in the greenhouse at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.

Floating trays in a greenhouse at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.

This month tobacco season gears up in the greenhouse, as workers prepare 1,000 trays of tobacco seeds. Each tray has 288 cells and the staff expects a 90-percent germination rate — this equals about 260,000 tobacco plants. The staff is responsible for seeding, planting, cultivating, harvesting and then curing the tobacco for research samples. Most of the tobacco at the station is grown for two types of research: genetics and culture practices. Genetic research includes looking for hardier, disease-resistant and higher-quality tobacco. Culture practices would include research of innovative weeding, fertilizing and harvesting techniques. The station grows between 200 and 300 different cultivars of tobacco annually. “This year we are growing tobacco with high sugars for biomass,” said Fred Smith, the station’s superintendent. “This is the first study we have had at the station for using tobacco as a biomass for fuel.”

Tobacco is not the only crop that is starting the growing season this month in the greenhouses in Oxford; the station also has 800 to 900 trays of switchgrass. “The transplant schedule on the switchgrass is about 12 weeks,” Smith said. “We want it to have a strong root system before being planted.” Switchgrass is harvested as a biomass crop and used as research for the N.C. Bioenergy Research Initiative.

Switchgrass seedlings in the greenhouse at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.

Switchgrass seedlings in a greenhouse at the Oxford Tobacco Research Station.