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 Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs.
The Christmas season may be several months away, but in Ashe County, known as the Christmas tree capital of the world, it’s growing season and Christmas tree farmers are busy. The Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs has about 15 acres of Christmas trees. These trees are used in research including ground cover studies, needle retention rates, shearing practices, pest management and fertilization techniques.
“Christmas trees are a year-round crop,” said Tracy Taylor, interim superintendent. “In the dead of winter after harvest it’s a little slower, but spring through the growing season is busy managing weeds and insects. Just like any other crop, it’s a full-time job during growing season.”
Trees are sheared annually in the spring, and during July research station staff are spraying for weeds, keeping the grass mowed between the trees and other maintenance needed on the fields of trees at the station.
Most of the trees at the station are about 5 to 12 years old. Christmas trees start their life in a seed bed, where they grow for about two to three years, then they are transferred to a line bed for another year or so. The Christmas trees that dot the landscape at the station are already around 5 or 6 years old when planted.
The station also maintains a seed orchard for Fraser firs. A seed orchard is a managed area of trees that are maintained for their genetics and used to create new trees or to re-establish a forest. At the station, the trees are grafted with specific genetics and seeds cans be harvested with these known genetics.
In addition to the fertilizer, weed control and pest management studies, several post-harvest studies are performed on the trees. These studies include best harvesting time, needle retention rates and flammability studies. One study is being done of a different variety of tree, the Turkish fir, to study its disease resistance and tolerance to North Carolina’s climate. Many of the results of the research being done at the station is presented to growers at the annual N.C. Christmas Tree Association meeting. The good news for consumers is that many of these studies will lead to hardier trees for the Christmas season.
Christmas trees are not the only crop keeping staff busy at the station this month. The Upper Mountain Research Station is just one of two stations in the state that grows burley tobacco for research. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries also are grown at the station as part of the effort to study ways to extend the availability of fresh North Carolina berries. And, the station is the only seed orchard for the Carolina Hemlock in the United States.
During the hot summer months, beef cattle from the Upper Piedmont Research Station in Reidsville are relocated here to spend the summer. In July, there are about 150 beef cattle at the station. Just like kids at summer camp, the cattle enjoy the cooler temperatures and graze on the abundant cool season grasses. “Other stations will use their fields to grow hay and other silage during the summer months,” said Taylor. “Sending the cattle here allows them to get their work done in the fields. It sounds like they are coming up here for summer camp, but there is really a lot more behind it.”
Recently, North Carolina changed its approach to beef cattle and has moved toward creating a single statewide beef research herd. This will help remove variability in research and increase the study size for research. Another advantage to the cattle spending the summers in cooler mountain air is that they stay reproductive in the heat of the summer.
To help support the beef cattle research, the station is in the middle of renovating one of its buildings into an indoor livestock facility for working cattle. This would include space for vaccinating, de-worming, weighing and more. Also underway is a project to replace fencing at the station, including 50 acres of pasture land, and provide well water instead of creek water for the cattle to drink.
Whether you think of work at the Upper Mountain Research Station this month as Christmas in July, or cows gone camping, one things for sure: It’s a busy time at this farm.