Extension Agent Dynamo + Farmer Ingenuity = Gre...

Extension Agent Dynamo + Farmer Ingenuity = Great Solutions

Extension Agent Dynamo + Farmer Ingenuity = Great Solutions

Farmers crowd around Heather Darby to examine a wheat stem.

Heather Darby is all about energy, using her own abundance to help Northeast farmers advance their cutting edge ideas—in the end, to the benefit of hundreds of producers across the region. A recipient or participant in nine SARE-funded projects, she has partnered with researchers and farmers to help oilseed producers squeeze more value out of biodiesel, organic dairy farmers grow their own feed and grain growers tap a new market in local bakeries.

“I would say that every SARE grant I’ve received was generated because of the questions and interests of the farmers in Vermont and other nearby areas,” says the University of Vermont extension specialist, who often uses her grants to advance great ideas to the point where they attract even more resources. The result: research developed into solutions that are truly useful to whole farming communities.

Many of those questions have been raised by the region’s emerging community of biodiesel producers, who are pioneering the use of oilseed crops like sunflower and canola in New England. Darby has partnered with extension colleagues and farmers on two SARE grants to learn more about oilseeds—particularly pest and weed management—and to share their knowledge with others through an oilseed producers’ network.

“What we’re studying is more what the requirements are to be able to grow these crops here,” says Roger Rainville, an Alburgh, Vt., dairyman who hosts much of Darby’s on-farm research.

Roger Rainville pouring canola seed into a press.

Darby and Rainville have also discovered that oilseed meal—the main byproduct of biodiesel processing—can be used as a soil amendment that suppresses weeds and provides considerable nitrogen. Thanks to this research, “most every farmer growing oilseeds has used it as a soil amendment at some point,” Darby says.

Now, partnering on a SARE grant with Pennsylvania State University Research Technologist Douglas Schaufler, Darby is working with oilseed farmers to “close the loop” by producing food-quality oil that can be sold to restaurants and then later returned to farmers for biodiesel production. This two-stage life can increase the oil’s value by up to 50 percent.

Darby is also helping Vermont’s wheat growers learn how to produce grain suitable for local bakers, who have been hesitant to source flour locally because of inconsistent quality. A major issue is insufficient protein in the grain, which is caused by insufficient nitrogen availability during plant growth. Darby has been working with local wheat producers since 2010 to test organic fertilizers and application techniques that will improve protein levels.

There are already results. “Some bakers have made loaves of bread from 100 percent Vermont wheat. Up until a year and a half ago, that had not been done before.”

In two SARE-funded projects led by University of Maine Extension Educator Richard Kersbergen, Darby worked with dairy farmers to expand their knowledge of grain production, including the use of cover crops and no-till with corn silage.

Again, the research was inspired by farmers, Darby says. “Grain prices are really high. They fluctuate rapidly and are one of the biggest input costs on most dairy farms. So farmers were wondering if it would make economic sense to grow their own grains, which to grow, and what the best production practices would be.”

Want more information? Visit SARE's database of projects and search for "Heather Darby."

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Location: Northeast | Pennsylvania | Vermont