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Ag meets urban

The Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, near the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, offers researchers room to grow while giving city neighbors exposure to agriculture.

June 4, 2024

3 Min Read
Man in plowed field with University of Minnesota water tower behind him
CAMPUS SHADOW: Andrew Scobbie oversees the operations of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, including the field plots that are near the St. Paul campus. Lauren Wangsness

by Lauren Wangsness

A college campus, apartment buildings and metro happenings surround the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, but it mimics a rural feeling of agriculture.

The Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, hosted at the University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus, is home to 180 acres of fields — right in the heart of the city. MAES was established in 1885 as a resource to University of Minnesota scientists.

Today, researchers at this station grow a variety of crops, vegetables and weeds, and it serves as a research hub for various projects. Researchers at the station focus much of their work on disease resistance and breeding, targeting work that is suitable for smaller field sizes and intensive management. MAES extends beyond agricultural fields, also having greenhouses, biocontainment facilities, controlled growth chambers and labs. Andrew Scobbie leads the care and upkeep of the operation, working as the campus operations manager since 2017. Scobbie is well-versed in the projects and details of MAES, and previously worked as a soil scientist in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate.

Home to many projects

MAES is unique compared to regular growing scenarios because the fields are much smaller and may host many projects. Scobbie explains that MAES is set up well for breeding and disease nurseries, and little production research is done. “The production agriculture research work is done out in one of the 10 research and outreach centers because it better matches the environment the crops naturally grow in, and it is in the backyard of farmers,” Scobbie says. “Our small amounts of land are saved for more intensive work.”

In breeding and disease research, Scobbie points out how much different methods can be from production research. “Sometimes, they don’t even measure yields because it is not their concern at this point,” he says. Instead, he explains that they may want to take pollen from one plant to another and harvest only a single pod of a plant. MAES plants fields each year, which is why the breeding plots can look similar year after year.

In the off-season, most fields at MAES sit relatively bare. To avoid potential conflicts with disease research, MAES minimizes the use of cover crops, as they are not necessary and can potentially host a disease with a cycle MAES is trying to break. Scobbie explains that because of the small size of the fields, much smaller equipment is used to plant, till and harvest. This small equipment cannot handle the residue of cover crops like traditional agricultural equipment can, and some of the plants are even planted and harvested by hand.

The relevance and importance of MAES goes beyond growing crops and conducting research. Because of the convenient location, MAES serves as an excellent learning hub for those outside of agriculture. MAES has hosted various contests and events that have brought people in to learn more about agriculture. Scobbie reflects on the importance of MAES, saying, “Just physically being here is some people’s connection to agriculture.” He also describes how meaningful it can be for youth to visit and learn about agriculture and regards MAES as having a certain “nostalgia” that can make visitors feel at home. Scobbie feels that MAES serves the local community by “being open and available for people to come and learn about agriculture.”

Wangsness writes from St. Paul.

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