Parkland College's Land Lab: A plot to learn

CHAMPAIGN – It takes a community to raise corn and soybeans at the Parkland College Land Lab.

Larry Thurow, his Parkland students and a long list of industry suppliers help Thurow plant crops on 30 acres on the college's southwest side and 12 acres on the northwest side.

Don Bergfield's students scout fields looking for insects and diseases that need to be treated.

Mark Ziegler's diesel power students keep the machinery in top shape so field work runs smoothly.

And Parkland Agriculture and Business Department Chairman Bruce Henrikson watches markets and sells the crops, depositing the income into the college's general fund.

"We're entrepreneurial," Thurow said. "We get community members and businesses involved in education. We get things done because the community's there to help us."

The Land Lab has been part of the plan for Parkland from the beginning. Thurow said farmer and college founder John Mathews helped plan the plots in 1973 when classes moved to the campus on West Bradley Avenue and crops have grown there every year since.

Thurow said space is tight now because many companies want him to grow demonstration plots.

"There's a huge demand for doing seed company demonstrations," he said. "I ran out of room. Several companies have new nongenetically modified soybeans, beans that are edible or contain high oil, and we have to keep those plots segregated."

Thurow said St. Louis-based agriculture giant Monsanto Inc. has been a Land Lab partner.

"We're doing a flyover to look at nutrient content with infrared," Thurow said. "It's a plot with known amounts of nutrients and we'll look at how light and dark the plants are."

He said Monsanto's trying to perfect that particular technology so it can get more information in the future about crop condition.

Thurow and his students also grow wheat, alfalfa, sweet corn and pumpkins – because Illinois is the leading pumpkin production state – and this year, they added popcorn to their inventory, just to try it. Thurow said they'll probably sell the popcorn to Parkland students and staff members.

In other plots new this year, Thurow and faculty member Theresa Meers are growing grass for turf, residential and golf course use.

This year, Thurow's put planting date demonstrations in his corn fields.

"I plant corn every 10 days from mid-April to June 15," he said. "Students see that the earliest corn doesn't necessarily have the best yields and that corn planted last has the most vegetative growth but lower yields."

Housing now surrounds Parkland's plots, and Thurow said that presents challenges applying pesticides and taking care of other field operations. "We're farming in a fishbowl because of urban sprawl, but we must be a good neighbor," he said.

Bergfield, whose summer insect identification class starts Monday, said his crops students learn about soybean maturity at the lab.

"We talk about why we plant group 2 and 3 soybeans in Illinois, and I take them out and show them the group 1 beans that are mature by the end of June and the group 7s that are tall and rank and will get hit by the frost before they're mature," he said.

Thurow said it's very rewarding to see his students mastering the skills to plant, grow and harvest a crop.

"When they plant for the first time, they're nervous, and they realize how much planning it takes to put seed in the ground," he said. "Then they come back in the fall and help harvest, and that's very satisfying."

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