The Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory of North Carolina State University  

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If you’ve ever visited or driven by Historic Yates Mill County Park on Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, you may have noticed the wide expanse of farmland and farm buildings that dot the landscape here.  But did you know that what you are observing is a bucolic 1,500-acre laboratory with just about all the agricultural commodities produced in North Carolina – from cows to corn and everything in between? 

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Doctor Natalie Hummel was the Director of University Field Labs and Research Stations for NCSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the time of this interview. Prior to coming to the University, she was an accomplished leader for Bayer CropScience in the RTP and was Teaching and Extension faculty member at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and the Louisiana State University AgCenter. She holds a B.S. in animal biology and a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California, Davis, as well as an associate degree in poultry science from Modesto Junior College.

Interviewing Doctor Hummel at that time was Joseph Ragone, Director of the Regency Park Partnership.  Joe has attended several Farm Animal Days there, is a frequent patron of the Howling Cow Creamery, and frequently enjoys the 2+ mile Mid Pines Road that traverses the facility as well.  He wanted to do this interview himself to find out more first-hand about this expansive facility.

Dr. Hummel, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today.  While I have been to several of your annual Farm Animal Days, have enjoyed ice cream from your Howling Cow Creamery, and hiked the trails that border your facility, I really do not know what else goes on there. What can you tell us? 

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Thank you and I am glad to be here to share what I know with you and your readers.  To start, the entire farm is actually a living laboratory – the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, to be precise. There, NC State University scientists generate new knowledge and technology to solve agricultural and environmental challenges. Students there get hands-on experience with modern agricultural practices. And growers and others in allied industries learn ways to make their operations more efficient and sustainable.

That is certainly an impressive and wide-range of operations. So what do you see as the mission of the Lake Wheeler Road Field Lab?
 

Faculty and staff members can educate students, create, and apply new knowledge and technology related to agriculture and drive economic development to improve the quality of life here in North Carolina and beyond.

   

I think we are starting to better understand what your objectives are here.  Can you tell us about some of the individual units that make up the site? 

Our website includes a complete list of the numerous individual plant and animal units that are here and also lists the departments that manage those units. Generally speaking, our animal-related units include the animal and poultry waste management center’s processing facility, a bee research unit and beef, dairy, poultry, and swine units. You’ll also see corn, sorghum and hay fields that are used to feed the animals onsite. And we even have one of the nation’s largest university-based feed mills

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Dr. Hummel, you mentioned that NC State University scientists generate new knowledge and technology here to solve agricultural and environmental challenges.  Can you elaborate on these units as well?

 

Yes. We also have units supporting the work of scientists, students, and Extension specialists in the areas of wheat breeding, turfgrass breeding and production, soil and water technology, composting, structural pest management training and more. The field lab also hosts agronomy and agroecology education farms.

There are also two units on the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory that serve scientists from our federal government partner, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. The USDA sites are related to small grains and to air quality and plant growth. 

What are some other things that happen there that might interest our readers?

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One thing that may surprise you is that there’s an informal birder hotspot along Mid-Pines Road. People come from all over the state to visit that site. Also, scientists from CALS and the College of Natural Resources are working together to restore a unique long-leaf pine savannah within the field lab.

That is very interesting.  I remember talking to a few students during one of your annual farm days.  Are there opportunities for internships and other activities for students at this site? 

Students who are interested in the types of activities we offer at the Field Laboratory can get more information from their respective departments such as for Animal Science; Prestage Poultry Science; Crop and Soil Sciences; Biological and Agricultural Engineering; Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences; and Entomology and Plant Pathology. 

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One other thing about our student activities that I’d like to highlight is our agroecology education farm, which demonstrates sustainable agriculture near a natural area at the Yates Mill Park. Students pursuing majors and minors in agroecology use the farm to gain hands-on experience. Not only that, they are producing food that goes to the university’s dining halls and to the Interfaith Food Shuttle.

Are there opportunities for the public to get more involved at your facility? 

Yes, there are, and I am so glad you asked this question.  We have regular volunteer days as well as club and group visits at the Agroecology Farm. The farm also serves as a classroom for an array of disciplines, including food science, crop science, soil science, entomology and more. Members of the public can get involved in the farm’s regular workdays. Volunteers are needed to do such routine tasks as raking, weeding, mulching, and turning compost.

 

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A lot of the units are in part run by students.  One thing I could say from my own experience: I went to a junior college, and they had a small student farm, and I lived and worked at the poultry unit. Through that experience, I got to learn how to run an egg layer house, take care of hens. And collect and sell eggs. We had a processing plant as well, where I learned to process the birds, and I sold the birds, too. By the time I earned my degree, I understood the whole industry, and decided to be a poultry geneticist. (I didn't wind up going down that road, but that experience is one reason I have the job I do today).

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Students can have that experience here, too. There are students who actually live out here and work in the units, and so it gives them hands-on experience.  It gives them a leg up for jobs in terms of having the hands-on expertise. It also helps them to test out potential careers.

Are there other activities any available to the public?

Most of the farm is closed to unchaperoned visitors, out of concern for safety of people and animals. But the new Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum, which was dedicated in April, is designed especially for the public. It shares the importance of the dairy industry in North Carolina, the history of Jersey cows and more. Those interested can schedule a tour and learn more online

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The Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory also hosts several big events. The two of them that would be most interesting to the public are Farm Animal Days and the Turfgrass Field Day.

 

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Farm Animal Days is our biggest event, and it’s free. It brings thousands of people to our Beef Education Unit for three days each spring. The event is hosted by NC State’s departments of Animal Science; Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences; and Prestage Poultry Science. It is designed mainly for school field trips for children in preschool through first grade, but families and individuals are also welcome. Visitors see and touch farm animals and learn about agriculture, and they’re also treated to Howling Cow ice cream.

And Annual Turfgrass Field Day, takes place each summer, and is geared for professionals in the turfgrass industry and for anyone interested in learning about turfgrass and lawn care. The topics differ each year, depending on what research projects are underway, but they cover a wide range, from managing pests to using irrigation technology.

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There is so much that takes place here and we are grateful to you for sharing this with us.  May we ask you what is next at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory? 

Innovation in agricultural science and technology is changing rapidly. At the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, we want to ensure that our faculty, staff, and students will benefit from these data-driven advances. That’s why we plan to invest in making sure that we are “future-ready.” This involves the Lake Wheeler Road Field Lab site as well as four research stations throughout the state. That will be an ongoing, long-term process.

And as an integral part of this process, we are preparing to move our small ruminant unit from the Reedy Creek field lab to Lake Wheeler.

​Anything else? 

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Coming this December we are excited that we’ll be adding a dairy education center and creamery. These will enhance our teaching, research, and outreach capabilities. Visitors will not only be able to buy our popular Howling Cow ice cream, they’ll also have the chance to watch video feeds of the dairy plant in operation and take guided tours of our farm to discover the many facets of North Carolina’s dairy industry.

Dr. Hummel, we want to thank you again for taking the time to share so much information with us.  In closing can you tell us if there are any ways the general public can help here?

We already discussed our Agroecology Farm’s volunteer days as well as club and group visits as well as our public dairy museum.  Another thing that would really help us would be with biosecurity which involves following the rules and not trespassing.  Another thing: I think that neighbors could be really strong advocates for this site. One of the things I would really like to do is to build an advisory board or even a Friends of Lake Wheeler-type association. And, of course, there are ways to provide financial support. On Sept. 14, we renamed our beef education unit for a generous donor, E. Carroll Joyner. The field lab is certainly a place to show your support for agriculture. 

Please visit their website Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory  to learn much more about this important facility.