Paul Horny, Longtime Farm Manager of Michigan’s Saginaw Valley Research & Extension Center, Talks About His Work & the Center’s Sugarbeet Role
The farm on which Paul Horny worked from 1984 to 2009 was less than a 15-minute drive from his home. That changed five years ago. The farm moved – and Horny’s daily commute stretched into more than 45 minutes each way. But he’s just fine with that.
Those 25 years were invested as farm manager of the 120-acre Saginaw Valley Bean and Beet Research Farm. Established by Michigan State University in 1971 and situated just a few miles west of Saginaw, the farm property was actually owned by the state’s sugarbeet and dry bean industry groups. For many years, it served as the primary location for MSU research on those two crops.
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That changed in 2009 when the “old” research farm west of Saginaw was replaced by the “new” Saginaw Valley Research & Extension Center (SVREC) located approximately four miles north of Frankenmuth and about 40 miles to the east of the west-Saginaw farm. Starting out as a 250-acre property, it has since been expanded to 320 acres.
Why the move? “We needed to make sure we were within the region where beets and beans were being grown,” Horny explains. As corn and soybean plantings expanded in that area, the Saginaw farm ended up outside the main beet- and dry bean growing region. Leaders in both commodities – as well as MSU – wanted to get the research facility much closer to the heart of their growing area – i.e., eastward into the “Thumb.”
That need was on the radar screen by the year 2000. The problem was to locate and purchase the new property. “The biggest challenge was to find a certain number of contiguous acres,” Horny recounts. “We were requiring at least 250 contiguous acres; and here in the Thumb, there still are a lot of farms in 80s and 40s. So there were very few large pieces of land available.” After several years, a suitable property was found – including, of course, an owner who simultaneously was willing to sell the acreage at a price acceptable to the university.
While the west-Saginaw farm was on a silty clay soil within a flood plain, the Frankenmuth one is a lighter loam – much more typical of what beet growers in the Thumb work with. “It’s a Tappan-Londo, which encompasses pretty much the majority of the Thumb,” Horny notes. “I would never wear out plow shares [at the Saginaw farm] because it had no sand; here, I get two years,” he quips.
Though the Saginaw research farm was owned by the bean and beet groups and leased to the university, the commodity groups donated proceeds from its sale to MSU – which in turn used those funds to help purchase the Frankenmuth farm. “So this is now a university-owned facility; but we still have the same partnership (with the beet and dry bean sectors) as we had before,” Horny observes.
The farm currently hosts research on five crops: sugarbeets, dry beans, soybeans, wheat and corn – with likely expansion into cucumbers in the near future. With sugarbeets specifically, the researchers conducting studies come from USDA-ARS, MSU (several departments) and Michigan Sugar Company. ARS East Lansing-based research geneticist Mitch McGrath does a lot of on-site evaluation and development of sugarbeet germplasm. MSU researchers like Christy Sprague (weed scientist), Kurt Steinke (soil scientist) and Willie Kirk (plant pathologist) run trials on everything from glyphosate resistance management to sugarbeet nitrogen response following wheat. Also, Michigan Sugar Company’s research team utilizes the SVREC site as an official variety trial location, along with conducting Cercospora and Rhizoctonia rating nurseries.
Horny’s role is that of facilitator. He and his crew get the plot ground prepared for planting; they fertilize, spray herbicides, fungicides and insecticides as needed; and they work with plot harvest and post-harvest tillage.
All that obviously involves extensive communication and coordination with the scientists conducting the various studies. “Anywhere from 20 to 40 researchers and technicians come up from campus (in East Lansing) in a given year,” he notes. “We support them.”
For Horny, that often translates into 12-hour days, six to seven days a week, during the growing season. He doesn't “own” this farm in the sense a farmer does; but the 30-year veteran of university farm management lives and breathes commitment to it. Like any farmer, he knows timeliness is everything; perhaps even more so, given the very meticulous nature of production research.
“The biggest challenge is getting it all to work at one time,” Horny affirms. “The coordination part of it can be extremely difficult. And like every farmer, I’m working with the weather. From March 1 through November 1, you’re nervous.
“In research, we try not to make any mistakes,” he continues. “We replicate for the mistakes that do occur. My goal is to be 100% ‘on’ every time. Yet we’re human, so mistakes do occur. But when someone gives you a lot of money to do work you can’t go back to them and say, ‘I screwed up. Will you give me more money next year?’ “So I think the reason we do so well here is that we give them (researchers, contractors) a product at the end that’s the best we can – every time.”
Much of what occurs at the research farm boils down to “discovery,” Horny points out. “We’ve always called this the ‘bug and blight farm,’ ” he muses, “because we’ll take a particular variety and run it through the whole process, for example, of inoculating disease on it, ‘give it this and give it that’ – and when it’s all done, we've taken one more step forward for the industry and the farmer.”
‘We obviously need the research that’s done here -
but we also need that next step, closer to the farmer.’
Though primarily a research location, the SVREC also has an important education component. A number of groups – large and small – visit the farm for plot tours during the growing season. Plans also call for the construction of a large education center that can host a variety of producer-oriented events, with state-of-art communication technology to provide live feeds of meetings and other means of information exchange.
“It’s all fun!” Paul Horny responds when asked about the most enjoyable part of his job. “The coolest part is that I get to see everything first. Because of what goes on here – the testing, the product development – when anything new comes out, I've been among the first to see it in the field. Helping to implement that technology is a lot of fun.”
The Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement project, coordinated by Steve Poindexter, MSU senior sugarbeet extension educator, conducts a broad variety of field-scale trials in the region each year. The work carried out on the SVREC farm, Horny explains, is the small-plot predecessor of those Sugarbeet Advancement trials. “It’s all very complementary, though,” he emphasizes. “We obviously need the research that’s done here – but we also need that next step, closer to the farmer. It’s often easier for the farmer to relate when they see it on a larger scale, closer to their own situation.
“In the end, we’re all here to help the farmer.” — Don Lilleboe
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