Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station

Action Station

People show up every weekday at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven with bugs, sick plants, dirt. They carry it in boxes and baggies and buckets and tennis ball canisters and whatever else they can find and present it with the hope that CAES scientists will be able to answer their questions.

Answer them they do, free of charge.

Soil testing is one of the public-facing services CAES offers. Soil scientist Greg Bugbee says the aim of the program is to “help people grow their plants better by making sure their soil is fertile, … has the correct nutrients, the correct pH” and that they aren’t overusing fertilizer. The New Haven lab tests over 6,000 soil samples per year. Along with analysis of the soil, CAES scientists can offer suggestions if people note what they’re growing or problems they’re having.

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Consumers can bring in insects and plants for identification or diagnosis of plant diseases. The station also tests ticks for evidence of Lyme disease, though most of those come via local health departments. But there’s much more going on behind the scenes on CAES’s small Huntington Street campus, where 36 PhD scientists, 24 research technicians and nine postdoctoral students work on projects involving topics including food safety, vector-borne diseases, wine grape and hop cultivar trials, honey bee health, the unexplained dieback of coastal salt marshes, remediation of organic pollutants in contaminated soil and water.

In the CAES mosquito lab, several technicians are busy sorting thousands of mosquitoes trapped by scientists in the field. CAES director Theodore Andreadis opens large refrigerator-sized incubators to reveal swarms of the bugs in netted containers or smelly pans of water. (Their food source of liver powder and yeast isn’t very appealing to humans.) The mosquitoes are sorted by species and location, about 50 per vial, and sent over to a biosafety containment facility, where they’ll be macerated, then tested in an incubated cell culture for evidence of West Nile and five other viruses. If a live virus is found, it’s extracted and saved for use in phylogenetic studies. Andreadis is concerned about an early rise in West Nile found this year in Connecticut, but he says it remains to be seen whether this will turn into a particularly bad year or the virus is just peaking early.

Not everything that happens at CAES is Connecticut-centered. A five-year federal program administered by the Centers for Disease Control has brought $3.25 million in funding for research into vector-borne diseases such as Zika and Lyme and related studies on tick control, deer management, rodent population management and more. Other federally funded programs have brought millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to the labs, “allowing us to venture into research we couldn’t otherwise do,” Andreadis says.

As part of the USDA’s Food Emergency Response Network, originally designed to respond to potential acts of terrorism involving the food supply, the station also conducts federal food safety testing. Currently, says Jason White, vice director of the station and head of its analytical chemistry department, the federal government has charged CAES with testing 20 commercial baby foods for contaminants including pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins, which is expected to take several months. White’s department also tests other foods and plants for pesticide violations on behalf of several state agencies.

Established in 1875, CAES was the first agricultural experiment station in the country and remains the only one not affiliated with a land-grant university. Its annual budget of $12 million relies on state funds and grants from both the federal government and industry. “We haven’t been immune” to cuts in state funding, Andreadis notes. “That’s had an impact on a lot of our programs.”

Even so, there’s a lot more work being done at CAES than most people realize, he says. One involves tomography—a non-invasive method of sending sound waves through trees to look for decay. Another looks at the absorbent properties of biochar for cleaning up environmental contaminants. Yet another studies the rise in the bedbug population and how to control it. In addition to the soil lab, Bugbee runs a program that documents invasive weeds in the state’s lakes. It’s having success, most recently, with “bottom blankets” to inhibit weed growth. The agricultural station also plays a regulatory role, conducting inspections of nurseries, apiaries and agricultural products entering and leaving the state.

Though New Haven is its main location, CAES also operates Valley Laboratory in Windsor, Griswold Research Center in Griswold and Lockwood Farm in Hamden, where its 108th Plant Science Day on August 8 will offer a tour of 80 field plots and exhibits as well as technical demonstrations, plant disease diagnoses, plant and insect identifications, a “passport” for children and events geared toward professionals in the field of agriculture.

“One of the focuses of the Experimental Station is to conduct basic research, but be able to translate that research to the homeowner to the grower,” Andreadis says. As high-tech and specialized as its research may be, the station’s mission to serve the public keeps that research down to earth, where the rest of us can reach it.

Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
123 Huntington Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm
(203) 974-8500 |…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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