The name just about covers it – School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences. With a broad mandate like this, the school is involved in just about every area of crop production and horticulture through weed control, soil science, plant nutrition and development of the latest and greatest varieties of wheat, oats, cotton, rice, sugarcane and sweet potatoes. The common theme that transcends everything is the environment.
Soil is a much-overlooked resource that’s key to food production. Protecting that precious few inches of top soil means everything to the producer wanting to maintain high yield and to the environmentalist preventing soil from entering our streams and rivers. Our scientists look at ways to prevent soil from eroding by protecting land in the winter fallow period with cover crops. We also develop strategies to reduce runoff of nutrients, chemicals and animal wastes. Protecting the environment means using inputs more smartly. Precision application of fertilizers allows higher rates in areas of need and lower rates in richer soil. We are examining many strategies to use drones and plant color sensors to assess need. The end result is higher yields with lower inputs – a gain for all.
A weed is any plant that doesn’t belong. Controlling weeds is a neverending struggle. A simple change in rice production has led to a weed (Nealley's sprangletop) finding a new home in rice fields. Understanding its ecology – why it is now a problem in reducing rice yield and how it is controlled – is central to keeping rice production high. Our scientists look to understand and control weeds in cropland, home lawns, sport fields and pastures. A well-maintained sport field is more attractive as well as safer for players. The LSU AgCenter extension program, Field of Excellence, helps K-12 schools across the state develop healthy athletic fields so players have softer falls and fields have fewer ruts. Twenty-three fields across the state have been certified so far.
Plant breeding is a unique mandate. Our scientists are involved in developing plants resistant to disease, drought and salt – and understanding the underlying genetic mechanism. Much of this is done through molecular biology, an area of science brought into the applied breeding programs to target these and other stresses. Producing higher yield with fewer pesticides is a driving ideal behind much of what we do. Producers face increased financial pressure with low commodity prices, and increasing yield definitely helps. Rice varieties developed at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station are industry leaders. For years, the Clearfield lines have dominated production acreage, and the new Provisia lines are coming into production. Our sweet potato breeding program also develops some of the leading varieties grown in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Orleans variety has higher yield in comparison to the classic Beauregard variety and is quickly gaining acreage in the Gulf South.
Horticulture is about the home and garden, but we also focus on the environment. Our turfgrass scientist has developed improved means of growing grass on levees, a surprisingly difficult task. A levee with no grass can’t hold up against water and quickly erodes. We are also looking at methods to reduce irrigation needs in ornamental production nurseries. Less water means healthier plants and less runoff of nutrients into the environment. The horticulture program gets the word out in many ways, and outreach is a major effort. The Get It Growing program provides the latest horticulture news on radio, television, in newspapers and on the AgCenter’s website at www.LSUAgCenter.com. The school gardens program is encouraging K-12 students to grow vegetables and make healthy eating choices.
In addition to research on pressing problems, we are also educators. We pass on what we know to a diverse clientele of extension agents, commercial producers, homeowners and government agencies. It is tremendously rewarding to see what we discover put into practice. We also train the next generation. Our research is often done by graduate students who then fill science positions in companies, universities and government agencies. Our undergraduate program in environmental management systems prepares students for careers in environmental regulation, resource conservation and needs assessments in environmentally challenged land. Our plant and soils systems majors become horticulturists, agronomists and soil scientists.
Don La Bonte is director of the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences and Lucien and Peggy Labord Endowed Professor.
Students in a landscape management class get hands-on experience working at the LSU AgCenter LaHouse Home and Landscape Resource Center in Baton Rouge. Photo by Tobie Blanchard
Glenn Wilson, arborist with the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden, assists a student in an arboriculture class. Students in the class learn to safely use chainsaws and climb trees. Photo by Tobie Blanchard