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  • Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Plant Breeding and Genetics Section
  • Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section
  • Soil and Crop Sciences Section
  • Organic

Ryan Maher, a research, extension, and soil health specialist for the Cornell Small Farms Program since 2013, has assumed a new leadership position as Organic Coordinator for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES).

In his new role, Maher will coordinate activities at the Dilmun Hill Student Farm, as well as organic farming research at the Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y., the Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, N.Y., and other locations.  He replaces Betsy Leonard who retired last year after 30 years at Cornell. She served as Cornell AES Organic Coordinator for more than a decade.

“One of my biggest challenges will be to facilitate more collaborations and projects at Dilmun Hill while bringing more continuity to farm operations,” said Maher.  “I want to get more faculty bringing their classes to the farm to use it as a living lab, and get more students involved in doing research and other projects there.

“There is tremendous potential to develop stronger connections between the farm, existing campus programs, and the community to support deeper, experiential learning opportunities for students,” he added.

Tracing its roots back to the mid-1990s, operations at the campus-adjacent, student-run farm are carried out by student managers and volunteers that Maher will mentor and advise.  Past harvests have been shared through Anabel’s Grocery, the Cornell Food Pantry, the Dilmun Hill CSA, and an occasional on-campus farmstand.

“Many students are eager to get their hands dirty," said Maher. And Dilmun Hill makes it possible for them to get real experience on the land, growing food and building community through farming.”

Below: Garlic harvest at Dilmun Hill Student Farm.

Research rooted in healthy soil

While working with the Small Farms Program, Maher conducted trials at the Thompson Vegetable Research Farm on reduced tillage systems for vegetable growers. He tested practices across a range of farm scales from strip tillage with cover crops to the use of tarps and mulch for organic week control.

“What attracted me to the Small Farms Program was the opportunity to support vegetable farmers in New York and the Northeast in building healthy soil on their farms,” said Maher. “Having managed a very applied, field-based research program, I bring an understanding of what kind of support other researchers need to run their trials.”

In addition to supporting researchers directly, Maher’s responsibilities in his new role as Organic Coordinator also include organizing field days and other outreach activities to promote organic research at Cornell AES research farms, and managing the certification of organic acreage at the Thompson Research Farm (30 acres), the Musgrave Research Farm (30 acres plus 8 acres in transition to organic), Cornell Orchards (3 acres), and an on-campus greenhouse with NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.

Organic research trial topics at those research farms include crop rotations and cover cropping, vegetable, grain and legume breeding and variety testing for organic systems, effects of reduced tillage and organic nutrient sources on soil health, and more. According to the latest available statistics from USDA (2021), New York ranked second in the nation in certified organic acreage behind California.  The state’s organic farmers raised crops on 331,000 certified organic acres and sold $328 million worth of organic commodities.

Below: Mayer explains his reduced tillage vegetable system research to a group at a field day at the Homer C. Thompson Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y.

A native of Baltimore, Maher earned a B.S. in environmental studies in 2003 from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., where he first gained an appreciation for soils and agroecology. 

After graduation, Maher gained hands-on experience working on small, diversified vegetable farms in Oregon and Massachusetts before continuing his academic pursuits at Iowa State University (ISU).  There, his graduate studies focused on how native grassland restorations can improve soil processes in agriculturally dominated landscapes.

“I’ve always been fascinated by those hidden, below-ground activities,” said Maher. After completing his M.S. from ISU in 2007, he went to work for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in St. Paul, Minn. For five years, he coordinated research on soil nutrient cycling to support farmers using perennial legumes in their crop rotations.  

“These experiences have prepared me for the challenges of this new position,” said Maher. “I’m excited about the opportunities to work with farmers, researchers and students to make our organic farming efforts more integrated and sustainable.”

Reach out to Ryan with questions and suggestions: rmm325 [at] (rmm325[at]cornell[dot]edu)  

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