Penn State agricultural research tour tackles emerging issues

University Park, Pa. -- Understanding the implications of the H1N1 flu, responding to federal clean water mandates and managing Pennsylvania's natural gas rush were among the pressing issues addressed during the Penn State Agricultural Council's annual College of Agricultural Sciences Research Tour at Penn State's University Park campus recently.

The half-day event introduced legislators, business and community leaders, and others to the leading-edge research on challenging topics being conducted by Penn State research and extension faculty.

A briefing titled "Marcellus Shale and Water Quality" addressed the possible effects of natural gas drilling on water quality and the work done by Penn State Extension to help landowners and officials detect problems early and protect their water resources. A successful model for reducing agricultural runoff and other pollution in Pennsylvania's streams was featured in "Demonstration Watershed Approach to Nutrient Management."

"Addressing H1N1 and Other Zoonotic Diseases" explained steps being taken to monitor disease spread and to develop an effective influenza virus vaccine, while research into developing procedures to reduce the number of contaminated-food recalls was highlighted in "Good Ag Practices and Food Safety."

Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, explained that, because agricultural research can be broadly defined and have far-reaching impact, events like the research tour play an important role in keeping policy makers and community leaders informed.

"We're stewards of the public trust -- Pennsylvania's taxpayers are paying for much of what we do here at Penn State," McPheron said. "So this is an opportunity to explain exactly what we do with the money and how it's an effective investment for the people who are funding us."

McPheron pointed out that the college's research contributions on now-urgent issues such as the Marcellus shale development, food safety and the Chesapeake Bay watershed, were started years before by forward-thinking faculty who were aware of the topics before they became critical.

"In our area of research, we not only have to solve current problems but also have to know what's over the horizon and anticipate the future, so we really rely on the creativity of our faculty," he said. "We ask them to stay at the very cutting edge of their discipline and we have a very good track record of being there on critical issues for Pennsylvania."

Sometimes a minimal investment crystallizes good ideas and eventually grows into a large program with a lot of impact, explained Michael Pechart, deputy secretary for marketing and economic development for the state Department of Agriculture, who attended the event.

"I felt the tour covered some of the key areas of need and showed why research dollars are so important," he said. "We can celebrate the projects that have hit their stride and are now important, but it's important to remember the part that early seed grants played in getting that ball rolling."

"This tour provides policymakers with a tremendous, hands-on exposure to the great research and education in agriculture at Penn State," said attendee and state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff. "This research continues to address head-on the many challenges facing our community, state and county."

Gregory Kirkham, Penn State Ag Council member and field marketing director for Westfield Insurance, said he was impressed with the timeliness of tour topics.

"Everything that we talked about today -- the Marcellus shale, the H1N1 virus, food safety issues -- is front-page news," he said. "I think there were some people, especially legislators, who were unable to come because they're tied up in Harrisburg in state budget negotiations, but I think those who could make it really benefitted."

Joel Rotz, state governmental relations director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the briefings should be useful for legislators in the weeks to come.

"The relevancy of the research is what really came through," he said. "What's more relevant than H1N1 and all of the environmental issues we addressed during this event? I can see legislators using this information. With the turnover in our last two elections, I think it helps in the budget-making process."

The Penn State Agricultural Council is an independent association whose membership comprises more than 90 organizations that represent agricultural or related interests in Pennsylvania. They include trade associations for various agricultural, forestry and food-processing industries; commodity groups and cooperatives; media; organizations that provide products and services to the agribusiness community; government-related organizations; and related general-interest groups. The council advises Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and serves as an advocate for agricultural education to both legislative policy makers and agricultural leaders.

A pictorial from the research tour can be viewed at http://agsci.psu.edu/dean/photos/09242009-research-tours online.

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Last Updated October 09, 2009