To celebrate National Maine Day on December 21, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting the innovative NIFA-funded research conducted by the University of Maine’s (UMaine) Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.
The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station has been a pillar of Maine's Land-grant University mission since 1883. It advances unbiased research inspired by Maine to meet the needs of underserved populations, spurs development of the state’s natural resource economy, and enhances stewardship of the environment. Station scientists manage more than 89 research projects and collaborate with farmers, foresters, and leading scientists worldwide, with a goal to advance and disseminate research to help make Maine a great place to live and work.
Successes and Innovations
Potato variety development
In the past decade, UMaine’s potato variety development program has released five new varieties in partnership with the Maine Potato Board: Easton, Sebec, Caribou Russet, Pinto Gold and Hamlin Russet. The Caribou Russet has proven highly successful, rising to 1,476 certified seed acres in 2021 with an estimated cash farm value of approximately $41 million in 2022. The intensive potato breeding and variety development process takes approximately 10–12 years. Scientists start with as many as 50,000 unique clones each year and conduct research on them over 10-12 years in multiple locations. Only a handful, if any, will have production and palatability characteristics they seek. Candidates are meticulously tested at Aroostook Farm, a 425-acre research farm managed by the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station in the heart of Maine’s potato country.
Wild blueberry production
Wild blueberry research at the University of Maine dates to at least 1898. Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro is the only university-based wild blueberry research facility in the nation.
Maine once had 150,000 acres of wild blueberry fields, and in the 1950s produced 10 million pounds of fruit. Maine currently has 44,000 acres of managed wild blueberry fields and, despite less acreage, produces an average of 100 million pounds per year. Maine’s growers accomplish the increased productivity, in part, thanks to research-based knowledge developed through the Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension provides that knowledge to the growers.
Novel wood products
Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and its economy is deeply rooted in the forest products industry. UMaine Experiment Station faculty are driving unrivaled innovation in forest products development.
Nanocellulose, a polymer derived from wood, offers near limitless potential in applications from food packaging to building materials. This renewable biodegradable material has superior properties, including exceptional strength and ability to bond.
Revolutionary construction materials from UMaine’s labs include a formaldehyde-free alternative to traditional plywood and a drywall alternative that is lighter, fire-resistant and provides superior insulation compared to current products. Scientists are also developing a lightweight interior wall covering system that’s easy to mold into various shapes.
Plastic is ubiquitous in food packaging, but its use is polluting the environment and affecting consumers’ health. Station scientists are working to evaluate how nanocellulose films may replace plastic packaging and extend the shelf life of foods.
Maine’s Experiment Station scientists were also instrumental in the approval of Norway spruce as a construction-grade dimensional lumber. This established a new market for some of the millions of Norway spruce trees in Maine, many of which the Civilian Conservation Corps planted during the Great Depression. Landowners, loggers, lumber mills, retailers and builders will benefit from the approval of a new species for construction lumber for the forest time in nearly a century.
Triad forest management
Triad forest management is a concept developed by UMaine Experiment Station scientists that advances three different approaches to management based on a given plot’s characteristics. The combination of intensive plantation management, forest reserves, and ecological forestry-driven use balances global demand for wood products with ecosystem services. (Article, paper).
UMaine faculty and affiliated faculty participated in the Independent Review of Nova Scotia Forestry which led to the adoption of the Triad on all crown lands in the province.
The natural resource sector drives Maine’s most valuable commodities, including forest products ($8.1B contribution to Maine’s economy), lobster ($725M landed value in 2021), and potatoes ($540M economic impact). Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station scientists seek to address longstanding and emerging challenges faced by these sectors to cultivate a bright future for the state.
Unique Agricultural Challenges
Lack of irrigation in a changing climate
Climate change is increasing the frequency and length of droughts. Most of Maine’s agricultural producers have not historically needed irrigation infrastructure. Station scientists are studying a novel, affordable well design, soil amendments using forest bioproducts, and other management techniques to help farms adapt.
A warming blue economy
The surface of the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s ocean. This poses critical challenges to Maine’s working waterfronts, including wild fisheries and a burgeoning aquaculture industry. Station scientists use modern oceanographic tools like satellite imagery, numerical models and buoys outfitted with an array of sensors to help communities sustainably manage fisheries, aquaculture, energy, and pollution.
The American Lobster Settlement Index gives those who manage and rely on the fishery a portal to what the future may hold for lobsters. This helps build a data time series to provide fishery managers and coastal communities the information they need to anticipate and respond to environmental change.
Maine is among the first states to extensively test soils and well water for PFAS, a manufactured chemical that repels oil, grease, water and heat. PFAS are widely used in household products (e.g., food wrappers, clothing, carpeting) and industrial settings (e.g., flame retardant). PFAS break down slowly and PFAS residue may build up in people, animals, and the environment over time. Health agencies are working to understand more about the health effects of exposure, including its effects on the immune system, fertility, child development and cancer. PFAS have been documented in the soils and water of some of Maine’s farms, and Station scientists are piloting novel solutions to this emerging nationwide challenge. Their goal is to explore remediation opportunities and safe food production methods at PFAS-contaminated sites.
NIFA-powered research provides critical support to help Maine spur development of the state’s natural resource economy, enhance stewardship of the environment and meet the needs of underserved populations. NIFA’s support of Experiment Station scientists provides the foundation on which fulfillment of Maine’s land grant mission is built. This investment is compounded by a match from the state and extramural grants awarded to faculty who are supported through this program.
Top photo: United States of America lights during night as it looks like from space. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.