On Ginger, Piggies, Willows And Hops

I believe I mentioned in a blog a while back that I am taking part in a 10-month-long leadership program offered through the University of Minnesota called the U-Lead Advisory Academy.

I’m writing my blog from Waseca tonight – the location of our second session. It has been a long day, filled with drive time, class time and tour time, but today has been the best day thus far of the leadership academy. I say that because we toured agricultural research facilities today at the Southern Research and Outreach Center.

Ginger growing in the SROC's high tunnel structure

Our first tour stop was at an agroecology farm, where researchers have planted hybrid poplars and willow to study the benefits of woody biomass. It was a few years ago that I actually wrote about this for a Daily Globe series on renewable resources. In fact, I likely interviewed the researcher that spoke to us at the farm today.

I would have loved to spend more time at the farm and learn more about the work they are doing. I was intrigued to hear they are also doing research on plants – the same types that the 4-H group I work with has planted in its prairie garden – big and little bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass.

Our second stop of the afternoon was at the SROC’s swine research facility. It’s an 800-sow unit – making it the largest swine research farm in the nation. After donning coveralls and plastic booties we had a grand tour of the research taking place in the swine industry. In addition to studying the effectiveness of DDGs in swine diets, researchers there are testing the advantages of doing away with gestation crates in swine production. This is important research as seven states have already banned the use of these crates.

What we learned today is that sows do just fine in larger pens shared with other sows. Concern over biting and injuring each other has shown to be not much of an issue. While there are certainly scratches and marks on the animals, after spending a few hours – or a few days – with each other, the fighting subsides and a boss sow emerges in the pens.

The SROC swine facility has one room filled with gestation pens and one room with the larger pens, in addition to a couple farrowing rooms. As luck would have it, during our tour we were able to see a sow giviving birth. I’m pretty sure I’d never seen that before.

The facility also has a methane digester on site, which I would have liked to learn more about, but the members of our academy have many different backgrounds and I’m sure not all of them had an interest in learning how hog manure is being used as an energy source.

Our third and final tour of the day was at the SROC’s high tunnel facility, where researchers are growing ginger. We learned about the phytonutrients in the plant and how those are being used in cancer research; we learned about a gorilla project, in which researchers are working with the nutrients in ginger to develop a product that will extend the life of gorillas in captivity; and we learned about a potential collaboration between the research facility and a metropolitan restaurant interested in purchasing it to use in foods and bar drinks.

The SROC is also growing hops and hosted its first conference this year for people interested in growing hops and making their own beers.

I had no idea the University of Minnesota was involved in so many different areas of agriculture. It was fascinating to learn about all of the research that is being done, as well as the breakthroughs being discovered through our land grant university.