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Sampling of Penn State’s Ag Efforts

PHOTO PROVIDED Herb Combs, right, assistant athletic director for outdoor athletic facilities and George Peters, left, supervisor of grounds, talk grass.

By TOM BUTZLER

(Editors note: This article is the first of a series exploring professional opportunities for Penn State Extension agricultural educators during the 2019 summer)

Extension educators come into the Penn State system with deep educational backgrounds and experiences. Most have at least a master’s degree (or working toward it) with a few holding a PhD. While that degree might snag the job, it by no means that education is done.

Learning must continue throughout extension employment (as in any career) in order to maintain competency in the profession. With that in mind, I wanted to show readers a look into some professional opportunities I participated in this past summer to widen and add to my horticultural knowledge.

In June, about 25 Extension educators toured several agricultural outfits in central Pennsylvania. Since many of the participants reside in all corners of the Commonwealth and don’t visit our area on a regular basis, we started by touring a few Penn State operations.

PHOTO PROVIDED Button mushrooms growing at Penn State’s Mushroom Research Center. Photo courtesy of John Pecchia, Penn State.

Our first stop was to Beaver Stadium, not to talk football but grass. And while some of us may spend a lot of time and money to make our home lawns look good, I don’t think anyone comes close to the care and effort taken at this field.

Herb Combs, assistant athletic director for outdoor athletic facilities covered the daily and weekly tasks of mowing, seeding, aerating, and fertilizing. He also explained that there are times where seeding is not enough and large sections of turf (one year it was the whole field) have to be replaced. They work with a farm in New Jersey and have large rolls of 1 3/4-inch thick Kentucky bluegrass sod shipped up.

Since we were on campus, the group headed over to Penn State’s mushroom research facility. And why such a facility dedicated to a crop that is produced by a small number of Pennsylvania growers (compared to the number of farms with sweet corn or tomatoes)?

Our state ranks number one in button mushroom production. In order to service that industry so they can remain competitive, Penn State has a robust research program to deal with some of their more challenging problems.

Dr. John Pecchia, assistant professor of plant pathology and facility manager, gave the group a rundown on the cropping schedule. Unlike sweet corn or tomatoes, which are grown in the soil, mushrooms utilize a different substrate.

At PSU’s research facility, straw, water, and horse manure are composted for several days to a temperature of over 170 F. From there, it is pasteurized and prepped for another couple days to remove ammonia.

Once completed, the compost is ready for mushroom production. While tomatoes and sweet corn start from seed, mushrooms (a fungus) start from spores. These are tiny and unpredictable, so the spores are germinated in a lab, typically on grain. The germinated spores grow into a thread-like structure called mycelium and this is placed on the composted material (straw/horse manure mixture) and allowed to grow into button mushrooms.

In the next column, we’ll explore some agriculture operations in Centre County, off of Penn State’s campus.

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Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.

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