Penn State

Ag Progress Days: Penn State, government experts collaborating through new research centers

Fourteen years ago, a strain of a devastating plant virus was detected in a peach orchard in Adams County.

In response, Penn State researchers and extension educators went to work with government and fruit growers on what to do about the disease, plum pox. Its detection here, the first in North America, imperiled the stone fruit industry.

The multilevel approach resulted in the eradication of the disease, and Penn State researchers contributed by studying how the disease spread. In 2009, the state’s Agriculture Department declared Pennsylvania plum pox-free, a status that continues today.

That informal collaboration between the state’s and university’s agriculture experts is returning in a formalized way, as the College of Agricultural Sciences and Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture are partnering in setting up three research centers to combat contemporary pressing issues in their industries.

“You have to have a certain level of expertise continuing on to guard in both of our institutions,” said Barbara Christ, the interim dean of the college.

College and state officials discussed the new research centers on food safety, animal care and plant health on Thursday during the third and final day of Penn State’s annual Ag Progress Days exhibition.

Pennsylvania’s budget for this fiscal year includes $300,000 to get the research centers started. Christ called the funding seed money.

Faculty from Penn State and leaders with the Department of Agriculture will head up the new research centers.

The Food Safety Center, led by associate professors Luke La Borde and Catherine Cutter and Lydia Johnson, the director of the state’s Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services, will work to help those in the food industry meet new federal safety requirements that are geared toward prevented issues than reacting to them.

Penn State’s role will be on the research and education end, while the state will handle the regulatory responsibilities, said Jay Howes, a deputy agriculture secretary. “We can’t educate — our role is to ensure compliance,” he said.

“If we can work as a team, we can work to get our stakeholder groups in compliance,” Christ said.

The Animal Care Center will harness the college’s expertise in this area of agriculture for help in facility layout and construction practices, industry certification and training programs. The center’s research activities will focus on best practices, certifications, facility needs and other topics pertaining to concerns associated with animal care in agriculture.

The focus of the Plant Health Center will be training those who are first in line to detect invasive species and have them relay their information to outside groups in the hope of broadening the network of people and groups, Christ said.

Christ said the plum pox example demonstrates the importance and positive results of such collaborative efforts.

Howes is hopeful that the ability to show such results will encourage those who control budgets to keep investing in the efforts.

The centers have the directors in place and they have started working. Christ said she hopes to hire one staff person to provide support to the three research centers, and that position will be funded out of the seed money.

The directors of the plant center are Sara May, the manager of the plant disease clinic at Penn State, and Ruth Welliver, a plant biologist with the state. The animal care center is led by Penn State extension veterinarian David Wolfgang and Craig Shultz, the director of the state’s Animal Health and Diagnostic Services Bureau.