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Interview with a Plant Scientist: Sydney Schiffner, Perennial Oilseeds Technician

Sydney Schiffner, Perennial Oilseeds Technician

What got you interested in your field of research?

When I was in high school, I became interested in biology and evolution, and when I got to undergrad at the University of Minnesota (UMN), I majored in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and really liked studying ecosystem ecology. While taking a course on Ecosystem Ecology, I wrote a review paper on cover cropping systems and found that they were mainly studied in the 80’s and hadn’t been popular since.

In my last year of undergraduate studies, I worked as a part of a directed research project studying how azaleas acidify their soil profile and a friend on the same project was a graduate student within the Applied Plant Sciences program. I wasn’t sure what my future would hold yet, and my friend told me that the UMN was hiring many graduate students as a part of their cover cropping and perennial agriculture programs through the Forever Green Initiative.

Since I enjoyed studying plants specifically and am originally from a rural farming area in northwestern MN, I thought it would be good to learn more about alternative cropping systems and how they can benefit their ecosystems and overall functioning. I then became a master’s student within the Applied Plant Sciences program and went on to study what effects agronomic treatments can have on Silphium integrifolium (the crop being developed for The Land Institute’s (TLI) perennial oilseeds program). At the UMN I was the first graduate student to study Silphium integrifolium specifically, followed by John Hill Price who focused on the breeding aspects. I specialized in studying what agronomic treatments (adding fertilizer, putting plants in different spacings, planting date, etc.) would have effects on silphium growth, development, and yield.

 

What brought you to TLI?

When I was in graduate school studying Silphium integrifolium, I got in touch with Dr. David Van Tassel and others researching and trying to determine the best path for domestication for the plant. When it came time to graduate, a position as the oilseed technician had opened at TLI and I seemed a shoo-in for the position. I was very enthusiastic about continuing to work with the perennial oilseed. Also, learning more about developing perennial crops and being a part of the place where a lot of that research was occurring was really intriguing to me.

 

Can you describe a typical timeline for a year with silphium in terms of processes throughout the year (planting season, threshing, evaluation, etc.)?

The typical timeline for silphium research really begins in the spring with planting and weeding season. It’s really too hot and dry in the summer to plant, so we focus on maintaining fields by weeding and mowing and begin doing our crosses when silphium starts to flower from the beginning to the end of July. In about September, we start collecting the seedheads we have bagged out in the field to collect these crosses made in the summer and thresh November through January. Most of the other time during the year is taken up by moving plants from one place to another, greenhouse experiments, and data-organization related tasks. I also assist with the Silphium Civic Science program, helping make materials, and disseminate information and plants to interested parties.

 

Stem cuttings taken from S. integrifolium plants in an attempt to propogate additional plants and keep consistent genetic material

What are some of your biggest challenges?

Some of the biggest challenges facing the silphium team right now include controlling pests and diseases that like to feast on silphium plants. The eucosma moth likes to eat seeds as they are developing within the seed heads and can then burrow down from the seed heads through the stems and infest the crowns of the plants, to allow them to re-infest the following year. One of The Land Institute’s specialists, Dr. Ebony Murrell, and her Crop Protection Ecology group are examining the resistance of certain lines to these pests, as well as using pheromone traps to stop the eucosma moths from infecting the vulnerable plants. Additionally, rust, a disease that infects many crops, has negative effects on silphium growth. In years with high precipitation, the spores can spread very quickly and do a large amount of damage before plants are able to produce seed heads. Dr. M. Kathryn Turner and her Crop Protection Genetics group are working with rust to determine how susceptible plants are, as well as determining resistance pathways so we can select for resistant plants in the future.

 

Have you/your team made any recent important discoveries?

While I was at the University of Minnesota we found that applying 160 lb/acre of nitrogen to silphium fields during their first year yielded much more seed and biomass than any smaller treatment, however we did not see that effect in years two or three of production, and saw quite a decline in seed yields. Whether this is due to stand decline with age, or increased disease infection over time we are not sure. While at The Land Institute, Dr. David Van Tassel has discovered what he believes to be a virus similar to a virus for dahlia plants that has negative effects on growth. We’re studying this virus in order to understand more about it and to be better able to identify plants that are resistant.

 

Have you been involved in any recent papers/publications?

I am currently working with my former advisor to publish my graduate research, which will discuss the effects of applying nitrogen, differing fall and spring seeding dates, and planting density on silphium development and yield. These will be relatively extensive examinations of the effects these agronomic treatments have on the plant within an agronomic setting and also an examination of how the plants yields differ with increasing stand age.

 

What are your personal 5-10 year goals for your work with perennial crops?

My personal goals associated with silphium include determining how to directly seed it into the field and establish, as now we use transplants of pellets to ensure successful establishment. An interesting physiological aspect of silphium growth is that it typically produces a rosette within its first year of growth (10-15 leaves), then goes on to produce stems during the following years. I’d like to examine this physiological trait, asking questions like: What does the plant need within its second year to flower that it doesn’t have the first year? Is it a cold period? Is it the amount of carbon reserves it’s storing underground? Additionally, designing cropping systems to maximize ecosystem benefits such as having polycultures of silphium and something like clover interests me, and that will be a large step towards designing these systems to be more similar to natural ecosystems and more potentially self-sustaining. These questions really intrigue me and will be important concepts in understanding how to domesticate this plant.

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