January 2015
Farm & Field

Focus on World-Class Farming

John Beasley explains proper care of athletic turf during a media tour of Jordan-Hare Stadium.  

Auburn University’s Media Day offers insight into some of the special projects and advancements taking place at the school.

When it comes to watching grass grow, Auburn University professors have shown it can be far from boring or "artificial."

What they’ve done for years is show that athletic turf can be terrific under the watchful eyes of scientists who have made AU a trend-setter in that department.

That fact was illustrated recently at Jordan-Hare Stadium when reporters got a chance to stand on manicured grass at the same time as they watched "War Eagle 7" and "Spirit" practice their graceful aerial entrances.

Other successful AU programs were also on display including research discoveries that help feed the world.

  Mary Catherine Gaston and John Jensen, right, walk along a pond during a tour of Auburn University’s aquaculture area.

Dubbed "Media Day" at the Auburn College of Agriculture, the program involved a little bit of everything for reporters, photographers and TV crews anxious to ask a lot of questions.

"We’ve never done this before, but felt the time was right to host a special event offering the media insight into some of the many things we do here," said AU College of Agriculture Communication Specialist Mary Catherine Gaston, who described the event as a way to update, improve and promote the department’s own special "brand."

"Some might say ‘Oh, you grow food,’ but we grow a lot more than that," Gaston explained. "We also grow fibers that make your clothing and turn some of those fibers into fuel and energy."

William Batchelor, dean of the Auburn University College of Agriculture, said the event was important because "there are a lot of good things that go on every day and we want to tell that story to the people of Alabama."

He described Alabama farmers as "world-class" and said they can compete "with anybody on Earth" as the department continues to look for ways to incorporate new technology into existing systems to make them more efficient.

In order to provide some specifics in the event, tours were held at the AU Forest Products Lab, the School of Fisheries and the Turfgrass Science divisions.

Mention Auburn University to most people in Alabama and they will likely mention championship football teams as well as cattle and cotton programs. For the most part, however, they don’t know much about a project that turns wood chips into electricity.

All the more reason, then, for the day-long program to single out three departments that have achieved international acclaim through the years.

At the AU Forest Products Laboratory, news crews learned about bioenergy research and watched a mobile gasifier demonstration.

Much of what the professors discussed may have sailed over the heads of reporters more familiar with touchdowns, politics and catfish ponds, but they tried to explain the basic nuances of their specialties to ease possible confusion.

Steve Taylor, who directs the AU Biosystems Engineering department, said the specialties span the "entire supply chain from producing biomass, harvesting, transporting, processing and converting it into a host of products."

A $10 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy dealt with biomass harvesting and transporting systems in a state with an abundance of trees to provide the basic resource needed.

"Two-thirds of Alabama is covered by forest land that amounts to about 22 million acres," said Taylor, who called the trees an "appropriate source of biomass that can be converted into electrical power."

Part of the research in Taylor’s department involves developing new biofuels, including gas made from loblolly pine trees. Loblollies are the most popular trees in Alabama when it comes to transferring their wood chips into energy.

Tigercat, a Canadian-based company involved in heavy-duty work in forests, has developed a new machine used by AU engineers.

A huge prototype being used in Taylor’s department was lauded as the "BMW of forest product equipment," exceeding competitors compared to "Fords and Chevys."

"What we have was specifically built for us as a research project," said Taylor, who was joined at the demonstration by AU researchers Christian Brodbeck and Sushil Adhikari. "It’s the kind of machine we wanted, but it is applicable throughout our industry."

The next stop was at the E.W. Shell Research Center where reporters were treated to an animated tour led by John Jensen, who has been at the university for more than 40 years and never tires of talking about his favorite subject.

"What we have here is the biggest and maybe the best facility of its kind in the world," said Jensen, who indicated that new technology is being developed at AU to help satisfy recreational fishermen as well as others who rely on rivers and oceans for sustenance.

Jensen said it all comes down to one word – WATER – something the Southeast is known for, especially when it involves continuing research projects.

He said Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states are "rich in water resources" that allow researchers an opportunity to further their studies.

"We have it throughout our states, but we must be careful not to ruin or waste those resources," said Jensen, adding "some are blaming the lack of fish for consumers because of competition from China and Vietnam."

The burgeoning world population has created new supply problems for those countries that provide the food, especially in America where catfish have become an international staple in some areas.

"The middle class is growing and demanding more food," Jensen said. "That is why we are working so hard in increasing seafood because it is the most commonly eaten source of protein on Earth."

Jensen believes it is a demand that will be met in the future because "our oceans will feed us forever if we don’t risk reducing that capability, something that happened in 1975 when we realized we had reached a maximum sustainable yield in some areas."

Because of that dilemma, Jensen said aquaculture has become a major source of meeting world demand for fish. Auburn University is helping to lead the way.

Catfish production currently is in the millions of pounds a year, but is predicted to easily soar into billions of pounds annually if the right steps are taken.

"If we’re smart, we’ll feed China and other fast-growing countries; but, if we aren’t, we may run the risk of losing our advantage," Jensen explained. "I’m not saying that can happen, but that’s the reason we’re working so hard here at Auburn to make sure it doesn’t."

It takes a dedicated professor to spend his time watching grass slowly grow to acceptable levels, but Eric Kleypas can’t wait to get to work every day.

When he finished his master’s program, his status changed from student assistant to full-time employee, and his eyes sparkled when he talked about his good fortune.

"I was hired for my dream job and you can’t ask for more than that," said Kleypas, 39. "As a student, I was able to go to class and then come out here to apply that knowledge."

One thing he learned is that downpours can’t be allowed to stop major college football programs or ruin valuable turf. That’s why proper compaction and drainage keep that from happening.

"When you have 300-pound football players, bands and cheerleaders stomping on the field, it can do tremendous damage. We make sure that won’t happen here because of the way we treat our soil," he said.

That leads us back to artificial turf that used to be the rage in some football and soccer programs around the world, but, as far as AU professors are concerned, that will never happen on the Pat Dye Field.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.