In normal times, Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station manages $6 million in federally funded projects, 175 researchers spanning three colleges, and dozens of farms and greenhouses spread across thousands of acres.
But with non-essential workers sent home and grant funding in question, one of the nation’s most important contributors of agriculture research has been forced to make drastic adjustments.
“A lot of valuable plant material has been either reduced or disposed of,” said Glenn Evans, director of agricultural operations. “Grant obligations for some projects can no longer be met, and it’s unclear how or if granting agencies will be able to adjust their funding deadlines or expectations.”
AES’ research projects cover a broad range of fields, including agriculture, environment, natural resources, sustainable energy and climate change.
But with Cornell suspending a majority of on-campus research, AES’ main priority has shifted to simply sustaining existing, critical research assets, such as invaluable or irreplaceable plant material.
“For example, most greenhouse and growth chamber-based plant material requires at a minimum to be watered twice a day, and pests need to be managed on a weekly basis, just to keep the plant material going,” Evans said, noting that the plant care team has had to significantly reduce its scope.
As a result, some existing projects were eliminated and most new projects paused. Ongoing projects are now being directed to reduce field-based trials by 50 percent or more.
In a measure intended to increase social distancing, all essential employees have also shifted to weekly, on-site rotations comprised of half of the staff.
“At research farms, the immediate impacts were to preparations being made for the field season that is just kicking off now,” Evans said. “Farm staff are still coming on site for essential duties, but are all rotating spatially and temporally to increase social distancing.”
Even so, according to Evans, accomplishments this growing season will likely be heavily affected by the lack of students and temporary staff that can no longer be hired.
“It’s certainly not business as usual, but everyone is working hard to make scientifically-based, safety-minded choices,” Evans said.
But despite the setbacks, AES has remained positive, maintaining some projects that it believes may blunt the severe impacts of coronavirus.
“While current plant-based research in our facilities is not geared directly to COVID-19 … there is a strong correlation with the work that is ongoing and food security,” Evans said. “One of the outcomes of COVID-19 has been major challenges to the food supply chain.”
With a growing number of families facing challenges putting food on the table, AES is currently working to support food security in New York state by providing vegetable and fruit donations with the help of essential workers that still remain on site.
“All of us in CALS are most grateful for their [AES employees] steadfast contributions and conscientious gumption,” Evans said.