Blandy Experimental Farm has revealed nature’s secrets for decades

Posted: September 28, 2013

The Winchester Star

Pollination time at Blandy Farm. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Blandy Farm’s administrative offices are in The Quarters. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
This marker is at the entrance to Blandy Experimental Farm.
RIGHT: Scientists at the experimental farm have glued radio-frequency identification tags to bumblebees so they can record the number of times a bee leaves the hive in a day and the time the bee is gone.
Orland White, the first director of the Blandy Experimental Farm, is the namesake for the Orland E. White Arboretum on the facility’s grounds. In 1986, it was designated the State Arboretum of Virginia.
Scientists in the farm’s radiation pit in the late 1950s exposed a variety of plants to gamma radiation in hopes of creating crops with disease resistance and greater yields.

BOYCE — Most of Virginia’s historical markers highlight places where history was made.

But a sign just off John Mosby Highway (U.S. 50) in Clarke County denotes a place where history — of the environmental science variety — is still being made.

As has been the case since Orland E. White arrived in 1927 and began planting trees, scientists and students from the University of Virginia work to reveal nature’s secrets at the Blandy Experimental Farm. Its research arboretum — named for White, its first director — is a natural laboratory for scientific discovery and a training ground for future scientists.

“From the very beginnings this place been all about research,” said Tim Farmer, the facility’s public relations coordinator, “and that definitely continues as we speak.”

David Carr, who served as Blandy’s acting director for two years before being named director four years ago, said some of White’s students went on to become high-profile scientists, and that tradition continues. Students who pass through the experimental farm now wind up teaching at top universities or running their own research programs.

“What we’re trying to help grow here,” he said, “is the next generation of scientists.”

Most of the research at Blandy — Graham F. Blandy bequeathed 712 acres to U.Va. upon his death in 1926 — is ecological in nature, Carr said.

It can be used in a student’s dissertation on how the amount of carbon dioxide released into the soil by decaying plants changes based on a site’s age.

It can be a project conducted with the American chestnut foundation to create a hybrid with the Chinese chestnut. American chestnuts have been devastated by a blight the Chinese chestnuts are resistant to, and researchers are attempting to create a blight-resistant hybrid that has as much of the genetics of the American chestnut as possible.

Or it can be becoming one of the first sites to be part of the National Ecological Observatory Network, known as the NEON project. The National Science Foundation effort examines important ecological issues nationwide.

The research, however, isn’t all focused on plants and soil.

Farmer said one continuing project is studying the habits of bumblebees, which pollinate many plants.

A researcher has glued a radio-frequency identification tag to multiple bees and placed a scanner at the hive, collecting data on the number of times a day a bee leaves the hive and how long it is gone.

Some of the research, Carr said, is a modern version of work White and others did decades ago, before the discovery of DNA.

“What they did know in his day,” he said, “is that chromosomes were the part of the cell nucleus that contained the hereditary information. What White and many students did was look at the chromosomes of many species of trees and compared those chromosomes across species to try to understand how the different groups of trees related to each other.

“Understanding that relationship might tell you something about the evolution of that group. It was very cutting edge back in the day.”

Carr said scientists at Blandy are studying DNA sequencing to try to determine the same information White was seeking in the research farm’s early days.

“The big questions don’t change all that much,” he said. “As our technology gets better, we get a deeper understanding of the answers and we’re always trying to get to that answer, but it’s a very slow process.”

Farmer said that in the 1950s, director Ralph Singleton studied whether radiation could generate mutations to improve sweet corn and other plants. Finding beneficial uses for radiation was a major emphasis in those Cold War-era times, and scientists wondered if it might increase yields or have other positive ramifications.

Singleton, who became known in the scientific community as the “Father of Hybrid Sweet Corn Breeding,” determined that radiation was not beneficial to plants, Farmer said. The cobalt radiation source, the pit in which experiments were conducted and all other remnants of those projects were removed from Blandy in the 1960s.

The experimental farm and arboretum has a paid staff of 25 full- and part-time employees, and its operating budget for fiscal year 2013 is $1.8 million.

Its efforts are supported by the Foundation of the State Arboretum of Virginia, a nonprofit group that helps to raise funds for the organization.

While the research is a major focus, it’s not everything that occurs at Blandy.

The experimental farm also features the 172-acre State Arboretum of Virginia, which welcomes visitors to its grounds 365 days a year. Fees are charged only for special events or programs, Farmer said.

Arboretum marketing has increased in recent years, he said, and the results are evident. In fiscal year 2012, according to Blandy’s annual report, 174,388 visitors were recorded. Just eight years earlier, the total was 79,433.

That, Carr said, is a major difference between Orland White’s Blandy and the modern experimental farm. Community outreach, particularly in the form of school tours, is a big part of its efforts, and attracting the next generation of environmental scientists is a potential byproduct.

“Our public programs are front and center now,” he said. “Blandy regards its mission not only as training and educating students in a traditional university setting but also helping create an educated and informed public.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw