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By Krisy Gashler
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  • Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station
  • Freeville Research Farm
  • Musgrave Research Farm
  • Agriculture
  • Field Crops
  • Vegetables
  • Plants
Cornell AES farm managers Steve McKay and Paul Stachowski have retired after 38 and 32 years of service to the university, respectively.

Two long-time research farm managers — with a combined 70 years of dedication to Cornell — retired this year, after careers spent facilitating research that has strengthened New York’s food system and agricultural industry.

Steve McKay, former manager of Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, NY, retired in April after 38 years of service, all at the Thompson Research Farm. Paul Stachowski ’79, MPS ’91, former supervisor of Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY, retired in February after 32 years of service, including work in vegetable and field crops, weed and soil sciences, and 14 years as supervisor of Musgrave farm. Thompson and Musgrave are two of the nine research farms across New York state operated by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES).

“To be a good research farm manager, you need to know how to manage crops, how to fix machinery, how to manage pests and weeds, but you also need to have an understanding of the unusual expectations that come along with research,” said Margaret Smith ’78, Ph.D. ’82, associate dean and director of Cornell AES. “Paul and Steve are both phenomenal at this: always responsive, helpful, and willing to work with researchers to meet our needs.”

Steve McKay’s “efficiency, communication, competency”

When McKay was initially hired as a field assistant in 1984, he just needed a job, he said. But he came to love the work itself, the research impact, and the values of stewardship and sustainability that Cornell AES embodies.

“This job pushed so many buttons that just satisfied me: I love to problem solve and I love to think ahead so that when a researcher, technician or grad student is asking for something, I’ve already come up with the best solution to help make their objectives achievable,” McKay said. “I hope that after 38 years, the farm soils are better than they were before me, that we’re more efficient at doing the work, that we’re using less water and we have fewer disease issues.”

Each year, the 260-acre Thompson Research Farm accommodates between 12-25 faculty from various departments, each conducting between 2-30 different projects, all with their own specific needs, McKay said. Among the many projects McKay has worked on, one he’s most proud of is installing eight high-tunnel greenhouses to support research on vegetable crops in the Northeast; high tunnels enable farmers to lengthen their growing season and protect against diseases that flourish in wet environments.

Phillip Griffiths, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section, has been working with McKay since 2013, especially for his work breeding new, Northeast-friendly tomatoes and Brassica vegetables.

“Steve has been influential in pushing in the direction of high tunnels, and those are probably one of the biggest opportunities for New York agriculture that there is,” Griffiths said. “He has core skills — efficiency, communication and competency — that enable us to take things to the next level; his type of personality is central to the ability to get things done at Cornell.”

Paul Stachowski’s “skill, attention and understanding”

For Paul Stachowski, the most satisfying part of his job was knowing that he was supporting New York state growers. The 450-acre Musgrave Research Farm hosts field crops like corn, soybeans, small grains and forage crops.

“That’s the major acreage of cropland in New York state and it’s also the major crop value; We hear about apples and stuff all the time, but when you look at actual dollars and cents, corn is still king,” Stachowski said. “I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I’ve become a farmer by heart: I enjoy seeing the crops grow and overcoming the hurdles that appear every season to produce a crop, but probably what I enjoyed most was working with the students and field technicians and helping them accomplish what they were trying to do.”

Some of his proudest achievements include overseeing major farm improvement projects, including redoing the granary, installing a new crop dryer and three new grain bins and bringing in GPS-guided tractors that have dramatically increased accuracy — critically important for agricultural research.

Smith, who is also a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, and in the Department of Global Development, conducts research on field corn and has worked extensively with Stachowski while doing experiments at Musgrave research farm. One of her long-running projects is maintaining a field corn breeding nursery; unlike a traditional field of corn, which grows tall and blocks most weed pressure, the breeding nursery requires gaps between genetically distinct plants, some of which don’t grow well.

“For a manager, this is like a weed management nightmare,” Smith said. “One of the things I most appreciate about Paul is his skill and attention in dealing with weed management and irrigation — two things you normally wouldn’t need to worry about with corn in the Northeast. He understands that this is not just production corn, it’s genetic material, and if we can’t get seed off these plants, it’s lost; we can never create it again.”

Impacting New York’s agricultural industry

In addition to their work supporting research, Cornell AES farm managers also aid New York farmers through public outreach events and field days, where growers and other ag professionals can come to the farms to learn about new varieties, and science-based solutions and management techniques. They also provide hands-on teaching experience for students and classes; for example, for SIPS Professor Stephen Reiners’ Principles of Vegetable Production class, students come to Thompson research farm and McKay and his team teach them how to use tractors and machinery to plow, harrow, disc, lay mulch, transplant, irrigate and cultivate crops.

The research farms also work to make sustainable use of the crops they grow and reduce food waste. To maintain soil conditions at Musgrave research farm as similar as possible to those in commercial New York farms, Stachowski keeps fields planted with corn, soy and wheat, even when not needed for research. He sells the crops in traditional markets and uses the money to help underwrite the cost of the research farm. At Thompson farm, McKay coordinates a donation program to local food banks; since its inception, the farm has donated close to two million pounds of fresh vegetables.

Shawn Bossard ’89, director of agricultural operations for Cornell AES, said both McKay and Stachowski are hard-working, detail-oriented people who are committed to Cornell’s goal of building a sustainable, productive food system in New York.

“The research Cornell has done has impacted the food system and agricultural industries so profoundly, and these farm managers are the ones who enable the researchers to do that work,” Bossard said. “These research farms are the gems within the crown set of Cornell University.”

“The wisdom that Paul and Steve have gained over the years will be very sorely missed,” Smith said. “They leave big shoes to fill.”

 

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES)

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