October 4, 2011

Prof. Merwin ’90: Horticulturalist, Local Farmer, Avocado Expert

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Merwin teaches several classes in CALS, including Horticultural Science and Systems; Wines and Vines; Ecological Orchard Management; and Tropical Fruit Systems. He also was very involved in starting the viticulture major at Cornell ten years ago. Merwin, who has personally been growing grapes and making wines for almost forty years, believed that Cornell needed to have a formal undergraduate program in wine-grape production. He and several other faculty members came together to brainstorm, met with local growers and specialists, and created a program that specializes in cool-climate wine grape production.

One of Merwin’s biggest ongoing projects is improving the avocado industry in Chile. Farmers in Chile grow their trees on very steep slopes in furrows because avocados need deep, well drained soil in order to grow. The farmers originally used herbicide to keep all vegetation from competing with the avocado trees. This, however, causes soil erosion and “when it rains, all hell breaks loose” because flooding causes nutrient loss. Merwin and his team found that planting native ground cover in the troughs between the tree lines, but not on the furrows themselves, allows the trees to thrive without competition from other plants and, most importantly, without soil erosion caused by flooding. Working with one of the biggest avocado growers in the country, Merwin’s results are “having a huge impact” and are spreading across Chile.

Recently, Merwin returned from a meeting for the United States’ National Germplasm Committee for Apples, of which he is a member. This committee looks to preserve current apple species while also exploring for new ones. The committee leads collection trips around the world which search for new genotypes that would be useful to the current crops in America. The organization also protects the species currently in the United States from foreign pests and diseases and has a repository in Geneva, New York that contains over 4,200 apple species.

Closer to home, Merwin just started working on a federally funded wine grape project with several other faculty at Cornell. His part of the project is similar to the project he did in Chile in that he is looking at how competing ground cover affects the productivity of grape vines. They hypothesize that slight nutrient stress caused by competition from ground cover should actually produce more flavorful grapes.

Over the years Merwin’s travels have taken him around the world. He has done research and taken sabbaticals in places such as Spain, Chile, and Afghanistan. He also did a lot of traveling in his youth. Merwin’s favorite places in the world are Chile, which he thinks of as “his second country” due to the amount of time he has spent there, and the city of Zahara de la Sierra in Southern Spain.

Raised on a farm, Merwin knew that he wanted to work with nature throughout college. After getting his undergraduate degree, he went on to work in California’s Bay Area doing landscaping for the major parks. In 1976, when San Francisco received thousands of cherry trees as a gift from the city of Kyoto, Merwin’s boss at the Golden Gate Park told him to “take these trees and go figure out where to plant them and what to do with them.”

After taking care of the cherry trees for several years, Merwin became so interested in the finer points of maintenance of fruit orchards that he decided to go back to school and get his PhD. He picked Cornell because it has a more student-centered graduate program that would allow him to focus on what he wanted to learn instead of giving him a list of classes to take in which he had little interest. Merwin was also interested in working in an atmosphere that cared more about smaller farmers than one that catered more toward big businesses.

Through his research at Cornell, and the other committees and activities with which he is involved, Merwin has been able to truly study his lifelong passions for horticulture and viticulture. And through his personal farm, he has been able to transplant that passion from the classroom to the local community where his research, formal and informal, will constantly be updated as he continues to cultivate orchards and vineyards.

Merwin plans to retire in the near future. He has started a phased retirement so that he can slowly cut back on teaching and research while he helps train others to continue the programs that he has started at Cornell.

When he retires, however, Merwin plans to spend more time on his farm, Black Diamond Farm, where he and his wife grow mainly apples and grapes. Specializing in heirloom apples, his farm produces over 65 varieties of eating apples that he sells, along with homemade cider, at various farmers’ markets, including the one in Ithaca.

Original Author: Sarah Cohen