Working to save the farm

MU’s South Farm tackles land encroachment
Monday, January 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:20 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

John Poehlmann sees a vast expanse of rolling farmland when he goes to work at MU’s South Farm, but he also sees encroaching development.

Poehlmann is superintendent of the South Farm, one of four MU farms around Columbia. MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, or CAFNR, uses the farm as an agricultural laboratory for teaching and research.

The South Farm is the first of MU’s farms to face external pressure from the growth in Columbia.

Yet one thing is clear: Pulling up stakes is not on the agenda.

“We have no intention of selling South Farm,” Poehlmann said. “It’s too important to CAFNR and its teaching mission.”

Instead, CAFNR has chosen to do its best to keep its farms intact and let the city expand around them. Already the landscape around the South Farm is poised to change quickly.

Elvin Sapp’s development of the Philips tract, across Highway 63 from the South Farm, will ultimately transform that 489-acre property into a busy residential and commercial area.

To the north, Billy Sapp’s proposed 1,000-acre development will, if approved, bring another 2,000 homes within close proximity.

Other colleges of agriculture across the nation have faced similar external pressure with varying results. Campus expansion forced the University of Illinois’s College of Agriculture to give up farmland and move farther from campus.

John Gardner, associate dean of research and outreach for CAFNR, is leading the college’s initiative to keep its research farms where they are. Gardner said it is important that the community understand the farms’ importance.

“Put yourself in a developer’s point of view. They see land that hasn’t been developed. The burden is upon us to demonstrate why 1,452 acres of vibrant agricultural land is necessary to the community,” Gardner said, referring to the South Farm.

The farm serves as a teaching and research center for atmospheric science, entomology, plant science and engineering. Animal science is a major component of the work done at the farm, with research programs related to horses, cattle, sheep and pigs.

“As the chemist has a lab, the physician the clinic, and the athlete a stadium, we in agriculture have the farm,” Gardner said. “This is intuitive to us, but we’re learning it’s not to others. It’s our hope that South Farm becomes the place where we can demonstrate that to the university, the community and the state.”

Only six miles southeast of the MU campus, the farm’s proximity gives faculty and students easy access.

Randy Prather, distinguished professor of reproductive biotechnology, uses South Farm daily in his groundbreaking research on pigs, which is advancing the potential use of pig organs for human transplants.

“The easy daily access to animals is required for us to be able to conduct the research that we are working on,” Prather said. “Without the number of animals that we need close at hand, the costs and convenience of conducting research dramatically increase.”

Animal science professor Monty Kerley, another major researcher at South Farm, said it should act as a window to new technology for producers of beef, Missouri’s No. 1 agricultural product.

Because moving appears out of the question, CAFNR must confront the challenges of surrounding development.

Elvin Sapp’s plan for the Philips tract includes a new diamond interchange that would provide access to his development from Highway 63. The location Sapp proposes would create a new road bisecting the South Farm.

CAFNR opposes the highway proposal. Poehlmann said the road would threaten the farm’s viability.

“What’s that going to do to our operations?” Poehlmann said, noting that traffic would bring pollution and noise, and that the road could compromise the isolation of crops and research plots, which is necessary to maintain the integrity of the research.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” Poehlmann said. “So the question for us is, how do we work with the community and not sell the farm?”

CAFNR has contracted with Sasaki Associates in Boston to create a master plan for the farm. The latest version of the plan outlines CAFNR’s need to upgrade South Farm’s facilities, strengthen its public education role and respond to external pressures such as the highway proposal.

The master plan also includes setting aside 46 acres for the Jefferson Farm and Gardens, a new educational farm being planned by the Jefferson Institute. Expected to open in spring 2006, it would give visitors a hands-on opportunity to learn the different facets of agriculture.

Gardner, who is leading the master plan effort, said Columbia’s growth around South Farm is providing CAFNR with a unique opportunity to serve as a cherished green space that will serve the community’s needs as well as those of the college.

“If we’re successful, South Farm will become a treasured part of the Columbia community and a daily reminder of not only how CAFNR touches people’s lives daily, but also Mizzou as a whole,” Gardner said.

“I think the importance of the South Farm is transforming it from a place just for the researchers and the enrolled student to a place that is the community’s and the state’s.”

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