Two CALS Students Receive Robert L. Parsons Award

A Pennsylvania dairy farm with two silos and barns, and many acres of corn growing during the summer.

Laura Eckman, a second-year PhD student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science’s Entomology Research Laboratory, and Sydney Miller, a senior undergraduate student studying agroecology, have been awarded funding from the Robert L. Parsons Fund for Professional Development in Production Agriculture. The Parsons award is offered in honor and remembrance of “Bob” Parsons, a dear colleague of many in the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). The funding supports expanded educational opportunities for students and agricultural producers.

Agrivoltaics and Vegetable Crop Production Research

Laura Eckman’s dissertation research focuses on vegetable crop production between vertically-installed solar panels, in order to learn if vegetables can grow well in the unused space between the fence-like rows of panels, and how the panels affect plant growing conditions.

She responded to the Parsons award announcement by stating, “I am thrilled to have been selected for the Robert L. Parsons award for professional development, which will fund my upcoming visit to four vertical bifacial agrivoltaic research sites in Germany that use Next2Sun technology.”

Agrivoltaics research plot with vegetable plants at the UVM Horticulture Farm.

Eckman’s project is part of a research group that will grow beets, carrots, and other crops at the UVM Horticulture Research and Education Center, inside and outside one of the first freestanding vertical solar arrays in the U.S. They will collect data including quality and quantity of crop yields, sunlight, and soil and ambient temperature and moisture. The group is collaborating with the Vermont-based company iSun, Inc., to install the vertical solar array and monitor energy production and associated variables. Next2Sun GmbH in Germany developed the vertical installation technology the researchers will use. Eckman will meet with Next2Sun staff and university researchers to learn about the use of these systems in Europe, and the research methods currently employed to study them.

Eckman is excited to see this practice in action and looks forward to making new connections during her tour of vertical agrivoltaic research sites in Germany. The tour will provide her with an experiential understanding of the current research being conducted in the area of her dissertation project.

Bee Pollination and Bryophyte Interactions Research

Sydney Miller’s academic interests in agriculture, ecology, and species interactions have spurred her involvement with the Vermont Bee Lab over the past two years. This UVM laboratory is focused on the health of honey bees and native bees and the drivers to global pollinator decline.

Miller stated, “Honey bees are a unique species, like a managed livestock animal. They are intimately connected to the environment and our native plant communities. I appreciate how the Parsons award will allow me to expand my technical knowledge and apply it to research at the Vermont Bee Lab.”

Miller worked with Dr. Nikisha Patel, a plant biologist and bryophyte specialist at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, to identify and image moss and fern spores present in pollen samples she collected. Lab techniques she learned during this time included light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, density gradient separation of spores and pollen, and plating agar dishes to germinate bryophyte spores from pollen samples. Miller plans to introduce these techniques to the Vermont Bee Lab and conduct further research on this topic in Vermont.

It is generally thought that bryophytes such as mosses and ferns reproduce only through wind and water, as they do not produce flowers that attract insect pollinators. However, Miller found that honey bees can carry and potentially transport spores in their pollen loads. Novel questions have arisen out of her collaboration with Dr. Patel, driving future work to better understand the interaction between honey bees and bryophyte species in the landscape. Miller’s research will provide insight to the scientific community on the ecological and evolutionary significance of these interactions.

About the Robert L. Parsons Fund

The Robert L. Parsons Fund for Professional Development in Production Agriculture was created in Parsons’ memory and with gratitude to the University of Vermont. His colleagues, family and friends contributed to this fund.

The UVM Foundation states that “the fund is available to farmers or students, the latter including CALS students in production agriculture, with priority accorded to those students enrolled in the 2+2 program. Awards may also be given to CALS students in other programs that support instruction and research in production agriculture.” Click here to read the full description of the Parsons’ Fund from the UVM Foundation.

Parsons moved with his family to Vermont in the year 2000, to work as an Extension professor in the UVM Department of Community Development and Applied Economics. In February 2018, Parsons passed away at the age of 64. While at UVM, Parsons delivered management education on profitability, viability and sustainability to farmers across the state of Vermont, conducted national trainings for USDA Farm Service Agency Loan Officers, and, in collaboration with numerous colleagues in CALS and other institutions, raised over $11 million in grant funding.

Parsons also mentored both undergraduate and graduate students, taught courses in agricultural policy, dairy project planning, and volunteered his expertise to Land O’ Lakes projects, training Extension specialists and farmers in Albania, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia.

Grace Matiru and Bob Parsons sitting in front of a classroom at UVM talking to students.
UVM CDAE Adjunct Instructor Grace Matiru (and Parsons’ spouse) with Bob Parsons teaching students. Photo credit: Cheryl Dorschner.

Parsons’ heart was in production agriculture. He appreciated the opportunity that higher education had afforded him to work in and support this vital sector.

In a tribute to Parsons, Plant and Soil Science Assistant Professor Terence Bradshaw stated, “Bob’s impact on Vermont agriculture looms large, as he has been key in studying dairy and other farm sector economics; in overseeing the UVM Risk Management Agency; in directing the Vermont Farm Succession Program; and in being a sought-out resource for detailing agricultural economics at all levels and relating them to stakeholders. Despite being quite sick (and sicker than he led on to those of us who work with him), recently he was commenting on Vermont Public Radio on the current state of milk prices and helping one of our undergrad students do his taxes. The man was dedicated right to the end.” Click here to read Bradshaw’s full tribute to Dr. Parsons.

The core advisory committee for the student awards includes Dr. Bradshaw and Animal and Veterinary Sciences Research Associate Professor Julie Smith. They solicit proposals and provide recommendations to the UVM CALS dean for the award.

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