- Associated Press - Friday, August 4, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - At Bradford Research Center on the outskirts of Columbia, the rows of tomato and pepper plants are dwarfed by the neighboring cornfield. However, within those rows are 95 varieties of tomatoes and 72 varieties of peppers.

“I doubt if there’s anywhere in the Midwest that has as comprehensive a planting of different tomato and pepper cultivars as we have right here,” Research Specialist Steven Kirk said.

Bradford is where the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources grows fruits and vegetables for research and educational purposes. Kirk told the Columbia Daily Tribune that the researchers at Bradford are not farmers, but they imitate farming practices in order to find solutions to everyday problems farmers face, such as weeds and plant diseases. The primary goal, Kirk said, is to increase farmers’ production and revenue.

Kirk is currently working on a project involving cover crops and watermelons. The cover crops grow between rows of watermelons to add organic matter to the soil and to reduce soil tillage by suppressing weeds. Kirk said he is growing buckwheat, cowpeas and yellow sweet clover as cover crops to find out which one yields the most watermelons.

Cover crops for commercial fruits and vegetables are different from the cover crops that corn and soybean farmers plant. The latter cover crops grow in the fall and winter when corn and soybeans are not growing, Kirk said, but both kinds of cover crops stave off weeds.

“You have the chance to decide what you want to grow between your rows,” he said, “because if you don’t, nature will be glad to fill it with any kind of nasty weed.”

Another vegetable research project at Bradford is evaluating five varieties of sweet potatoes’ growth, yield and resistance to disease and insects. Associate Professor of Plant Sciences Xi Xiong and graduate research assistant Waana Kaluwasha are working on the project from June to October. Kaluwasha said sweet potato consumption has been growing because of the vegetable’s nutritional value, so the research is important because it helps farmers meet the increasing demand.

Kirk, Xiong and Kaluwasha will discuss their projects during wagon tours of Bradford during the recent Vegetable Grower’s Field Day. The research center has hosted the annual Tomato Fest since 2005, but Kirk said the festival is too hectic to feature the plants in the vegetable garden because the focus is mainly on eating the produce. The field day will be an opportunity for visitors to see the vegetables up close while they are still on the plants, he said.

“It’s hard to get that concept when it’s sitting on a plate all cut up,” Kirk said.

Bradford Superintendent Andrew Biggs agreed that the field day is more about education than entertainment, and it is “more about how to grow things than what to grow.”

The field day will include a presentation from Kathy McFarland of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. After the wagon tours, there will be walking tours that showcase the tomato and pepper gardens. Researchers and faculty members from the MU Department of Plant Sciences will lead the tours and discuss vegetable cultivation, insects and diseases.

Biggs said Bradford faculty members regularly collaborate with researchers at other facilities, and research at Bradford “comes and goes” based on the availability of funding. Grants from the state, federal government, and not-for-profit organizations fund research at the center, which is currently in a lull, Biggs said.

However, the current research projects are important because vegetable production in Missouri is on the rise, Kirk said.

“It’ll never be corn and soybeans, but it’ll be substantial,” he said.


Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, https://www.columbiatribune.com

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