Penn State Extension brings agriculture home in Franklin County

PAT FRIDGEN
West Nile Coordinator Raymond Eckhart shows visitors the equipment used to spray mosquitos. Franklin County Cooperative Extension targets areas which show a concentrated population of the disease-carrying insect.

Penn State Extension has so much to offer Franklin County citizens, the 45-minute walking tour for the public took two and a half hours. The open house at the cooperative extension complex in Chambersburg on June 22 acquainted visitors from around the county on the many programs available, all providing education and activities for a wide range of interests.

"We wanted to get the word out on the breadth of programs that Penn State has to benefit the community," said Karen Hack, County Extension Director.  "The purpose of extension is to bring science-based information to the community."

Springing from the land-grant system created for The Pennsylvania State University, extension offices in all 67 counties conduct research and teach  consumers about topics related to agriculture and technical education. The data is relevant to individuals, businesses, organizations and communities as a whole, say the educators, formerly called extension agents.

"Our tour took longer than I expected," said volunteer guide Robert Pismeny. "Each educator was so enthusiastic about his duties."

The visitors to 181 Franklin Farm Lane were exposed to the work of many professionals and volunteers who spend time on the extension grounds.

Franklin County Eco Park

The seven-acre wildlife habitat off the back parking lot was designed 14 years ago as a riparian buffer to protect a branch of the Falling Spring stream from runoff, said George Hurd, educator for environmental and resource development.  One thousand trees were planted, birdhouses and bat boxes installed, and a wetland constructed to make the area a wildlife habitat. Today visitors on the .10 mile path might see deer, muskrat, opposum or squirrel.

The park is an example of how any landowner could manage a small woodlot, continued Hurd.

"This is an outdoor classroom for education, conservation and recreation."

4-H Therapeutic Riding

Center

Susan Rotz has been a riding instructor for 25 years. She is one of 100 staff and volunteers who make it possible for students with disabilities to learn how ride a horse. Up to 80 people, from age 3 into their 60s, take lessons February through December.

"This is a sport that people with disabilities can do," said Rotz. "Here everyone is equal. You don't notice wheelchairs or crutches."

The program focuses on children with austism spectrum disorders. Students learn how to ride or drive a carriage, and in the process, also learn patience, following directions and how to socialize with others. The ten horses have been donated, free-leased or purchased.

Rotz was grateful for the community support since 1982 and welcomed even more assistance. She promised rewards.

"We want the kids to be as independent as possible, to ride without any help. When they can do that, it's just fabulous."

4-H Ag Learning Center

The center, established in 1999, concentrates on teaching youngsters about agriculture. 4-H intern Jaclyn Upperman said children from Chambersburg still thought chocolate milk came from chocolate cows. She was setting the facts straight this spring and summer as groups came through from various camps and schools. Hands-on lessons and contact with calves, pigs, rabbits and chickens brought the farming industry alive to them. One animal in particular spread some joy.

"The pig likes his belly rubbed. The kids really enjoy that," said Upperman.

West Nile Virus Program

Franklin County has been managing vector-borne diseases since 2004 by conducting an integrated pest management program for mosquitos. West Nile coordinator Ray Eckhart said the main duty was surveillance. If a high enough concentration of the disease-carrying bug was discovered, the area was sprayed using one of several pieces of equipment — a backpack unit, an ATV, or a truck. His team had sprayed in the wooded areas throughout most of the county. Excluded were Mercersburg and Greencastle. The spray was 85 percent effective, based on followup testing. Because the insect was active just after dusk, crews had a short window to target the night flyers. Best conditions included low cloud cover, humidity, warm weather and a slight breeze.

"We also respond to complaint calls for other species of mosquitos, those that are biting people," Eckhart said.

His advice to minimize attracting the nuisances — get rid of standing water in roof gutters, dog dishes, planter basins, birdbaths and such. For rain barrels, plop in a mosquito dunk with BTI as the active ingredient.

Master Gardening

Flower and vegetable enthusiasts join the Master Gardening program to learn new skills and tactics, and they in turn provide thousands of hours of volunteer help in maintaining gardens and teaching consumer horticulture programs. Pismeny was one of them, still an apprentice until he had 50 hours of service completed.

His peer, Laurie Collins, encouraged visitors to be aware of the need for pollinator-friendly yards. Too many were too tidy, so bees and butterflies had no opportunity to do what they were meant to do. Let one corner of the yard house dandelions, a good food source early in the season. Research what kind of flowers and plants attract pollinators. Reduce pesticide use, or apply at dusk.

Donna Berard showed off the Victory Garden, full of vegetables bursting with life after their June 1 planting. Members of the gardening class took care of it each season. They hoped the late start meant the beetles wouldn't need the plants as a food source.

"The perk of the class is, if you do the work, you get the produce," Berard said. By summer's end, the volunteers would be able to take home corn, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, potatoes and more.

A busy crew was in the perennial flower garden, pulling weeds. No insecticides were allowed in either patch.

"It's a lot of work," grinned Pismeny.

In the Wildlife Habitat area Jane Krumpe welcomed homeowners to visit the site at any time for ideas on native species they might like to plant, and among other things, to take advantage of the weed identification program. A visitor immediately handed over a plastic bag with a weed inside.

"Oh, that's woodland sorrel," said Krumpe. "It spreads by runners or by seed."

Research trials

Agronomy educator Jennifer Bratthauar showed how her solar-powered weather station collected data on wind speed and direction, rainfall and temperature. Her job was to help farmers improve their crop production practices. Regional horticultural educator Steve Bogash is studying methods of growing tomatoes commercially for best yield and packability. He is also comparing plots of bell peppers in different situations in Chambersburg and Lancaster for best harvest yield before the veggie is too ripe.

His studies also allowed the expert to change his mind on one aspect of gardening. He used to think "Gardening in pots is for wimps and those who can't."

But when he actually tried it, he realized it was fun, manageable, an accessible option for just about anyone, and meant he could grow as much as he needed without the end-of-season bounty.

Educator Alex Surcica had the tourists pet a bumblebee. His field of expertise was pollinators, a popular field because of the colony collapse disorder hitting the honeybee population. He tended to 24 species of plants in an effort to increase the diversity of bees. He wanted farmers to realize that renting honeybees each year might be "superfluous."

Many were wasting their money because their pumpkin fields were already full of squash bees, which finished the pollination before the honeybees even arrived. Surcica could determine the density of the squash bees for the farmer, since he could capture them as they slept in the blossoms at night. He was also creating a field guide on wasps and bees.

The Patrick Gass Garden

Near the Ag Heritage Center sits a limestone house, the birthplace of Patrick Gass. Cindy and Bill Stead, Master Gardeners, recently became enthralled with the knowledge of Gass' place in history.

"Our county is so rich in history. This is a significant piece to explore," Cindy said.

Gass, born in 1771, traveled with Lewis and Clark from 1803 to 1806. He was noted for his carpentry and soldiering skills. He also served in the War of 1812 and lived to be 99.

The Steads found a biography of him in a dusty bookstore in Chicago.

"A man in 1859 was so fascinated that someone from the Lewis and Clark Expedition was still living that he wrote this book," said Cindy.

Now plans are in the works to build a garden in Gass' name, from the house out to Franklin Farm Lane. Over five years, sections will be designed using plants reported in the expedition records, and others documented as viable locally in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The house is now recognized by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Tour guide Robert Pismeny and visitor Steve Hill meet D.B. Bug during the Franklin County Cooperative Extension open house. The robot is used to educate children and adults about pests.