A Centennial of Seeds

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

Photo courtesy of New York State Seed Testing Laboratory

Testing seeds for purity and germination can’t be done by machine. Joyce Wicksall, a 50-plus-year employee of the New York State Seed Testing Laboratory in Geneva, is one of the nation’s top seed experts.<\c>

NY State Testing Laboratory Stands the Test of Time

GENEVA, N.Y. — Growing better crops starts with better seeds. That’s why the New York State Seed Testing Lab was established at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1882. As the official regulatory lab for the state since 1912, the lab celebrates its centennial this year.

Offering third-party testing gives area growers unbiased research to help them select the best seed for their operation’s particular need. The lab works closely with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to ensure accurate seed labels.

Back when the seed lab first opened, its biggest concern was seed purity, since weed seeds infiltrated batches of seeds. Those contaminated batches all but ruined fields. In modern times, germination and genetics are top issues to prevent crop losses. Despite the shift of focus, many aspects of the lab remain the same as when it first opened.

With all the modern technology available, the work performed in the lab is still very much human-based research dependent upon observation and hands-on examination.

“Machines can’t do it,” said Michael Loos, interim director of the lab. “They have not developed the ability to do the identification for purity in seeds. It has to be done by a human being trained to do so. It is a very complicated process.”

Loos’ mentor, Joyce Wicksall, has worked for the lab since she was 17 in 1954.

“She’s probably one of the nation’s best purity analysts,” Loos said. “It’s a privilege to work with her. She has retired three times and has been asked back to work because it is such a highly skilled position.”

Germination testing is another task machines can’t do. Seedlings must be uprooted and examined manually to see how well they are growing.

“It depends on the analyst’s eye and how long they’ve been trained,” Loos said.

Some of the equipment is more than 50 years old, but new germinators and computer-controlled incubators give the lab some modern advantages.

The lab’s herbarium possesses several thousand species for researchers to use as reference aids in identifying samples sent to them. Though logged in an electronic database, the sample species help lab employees process more than 1,200 New York samples from growers and 800 to 900 samples from the Department of Agriculture and Markets annually. Out-of-state samples are no longer accepted.

“We help maintain the integrity of the seed within the community and our state,” Loos said. “With better seeds we get better food and more available food. It’s so important to the interests of local foods, whether growing grain for cows or to feed humans. It affects our people very directly.”

In addition to seed analysis, the lab also offers educational outreaches to growers. The lab plans to host its 74th annual Cornell Seed Conference later this month.

Sponsors of the event include the Seed Committee of New York State Agri-business Association, New York Seed Improvement Cooperative, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Organizers anticipate about 50 to 60 growers to attend, plus vendors and speakers.

“We hold the conference every year and this year, one of the more direct goals is opening up some conversation between the industry and the actual community in this area: the farmers who use the seed,” Loos said. “We have a few corporate people coming who will talk about what’s in the pipeline for them to use.

“We have some really fantastic speakers coming in,” Loos added. “We’re Cornell-based and they’re Cornell speakers, but they are extraordinary.”

The New York Seed Improvement Cooperative Board Meeting will meet the first day of the conference. The following day, registration for the general sessions will begin at 8:30 a.m. The New York State Agri-business Association Seed Committee will meet between 9 and 9:30 a.m., and the New York Seed Improvement Cooperative Inc. will meet from 9:30 to 10 a.m. The general session will start at 10 a.m.

Don Viands, associate dean for academic affairs and department plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, will speak on “Educating Cornell Students for Careers in Agriculture, and Update on Forage and Biofuel Breeding Efforts.” Pat Miller, representing the American Seed Trade Association, will talk about “The Farm Bill (or Lack Thereof!) and Other Parts of the View from Washington.” Mark Edge, representing Monsanto, will address “Monsanto’s Drought Tolerance Trait and Corn Technology Pipeline.”

In the afternoon sessions, Keith Burnell of Syngenta will speak on “New Seed Treatments and New Seed Traits from Syngenta.” Brian Nault, Department of Entomology, Geneva, Cornell University, will address “Advancements in Insecticide Seed Treatments for Vegetable Crops.” Toni DiTommaso, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University, is slated to speak about “Opportunities/Challenges in Integrated Weed Management.”

Thomas Bjorkman, Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, will discuss “Seed Supply Issues with Cover Crop Seeds.”

Organizers will present the NYSABA Seed Committee awards during the event.

A tour of the Food Venture Center and Food Science Department will conclude the day.

“This year, the Department of Agriculture & Markets isn’t speaking but will have a representative there to answer questions,” Loos said. “There is a lot of information (attendees) are going to be receiving. Some will be new ideas on research, some will be reinforcement and educational.”

He added that the event would be useful to anyone growing grain crops, dairymen who grow their own feed, and organic cover crop specialists.

Attendees can receive continuing education credits for DEC recertification and certified crop advisers.

The New York Seed Improvement Cooperative Board Meeting is slated for Wednesday, Nov. 28, at Hedrick Hall at NYSAES in Geneva. The Cornell Seed School sessions will be held Thursday, Nov. 29, at Jordan Hall, NYSAES, Geneva.

Admission is $20, which includes lunch.

For more information, call Lena Gray, administrative assistant for New York State Seed Improvement Project, at 607 255-9869.

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