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Davis College essential employees work through pandemic shutdown

Evansdale Greenhouse

Although research efforts at West Virginia University came to a halt in response to the coronavirus crisis, agriculture doesn’t stop in the face of a pandemic.

And, neither have essential employees in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

With plants, animals and farms to care for, they have a difficult and unique task when it comes to managing resources during these uncertain times.

“The biggest thing that separates us from the other colleges is our field work,” said Matt Wilson, associate dean for research and associate director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. “Of the seven farm locations we operate, six of them have animals that need to be taken care of. Our greenhouse still has plants that need to be cared for. From that standpoint, we had to ensure essential employees could still perform those jobs safely..”

He worked with college and university representatives to establish guidelines including social distancing measures as well as travel and community interaction restrictions. Aware that COVID-19 is highly communicable, Wilson made preparations to allow student workers to work as many as 40 hours per week if other staff were to become ill with the disease.

Many of the essential employees are taking care of animals and crops while ensuring research is not set back.

“It’s springtime, so for many of our researchers it’s time to get ready for or maybe even start planting for projects,” Wilson explained. “We’re relying on our essential employees to keep things running, even if it is at a slower pace.”

One of those essential employees is Andrea Landis, manager of the Evansdale Greenhouse.

She and two staff members are taking care of 16 faculty and student research projects that were started prior to the transition to telework assignments and online instruction.

They’re on a rotating schedule so no one is there at the same time. They clean door handles, wear gloves and carry their own pens to leave notes of what was done.

A typical day consists of making sure equipment is working in the 16 growing rooms, plants are watered in the plastic house and others are transplanted where they need to grow. In addition to that, Landis is also troubleshooting and updating the researchers.

“We're not sure how long this will go on,” she said. “As of right now there are still a couple projects that are just hanging on until we figure out if researchers will be able to continue. We’re constantly updating them on pest or disease issues and figuring out the best path forward together.”

Landis is sending pictures to researchers and professors with updates each week to ease anxieties.

“There is still a lot that can be learned during this time,” she said. “The pictures are necessary to show students the growth progression of plants, the diseases they may have and suggest treatment for them.”

The open lines of communication also help researchers like Nicole Waterland, associate professor of horticulture and director of controlled environments, continue to care for their projects remotely.  

“The support staff has been wonderful and having those essential people to take care of things gives us peace of mind,” she said. “It doesn't completely alleviate all the stress associated with this, but at least we know there will be plant material and functional equipment to come back to when this is over.”

Two of her research projects focus on understanding how climate change and rising temperatures will affect perennial crops like blueberries and how to use robotic pollinators for blackberry bushes.

The blueberries are flowering now and, thankfully, Waterland was able to get bees in to help with pollination prior to the shut down. The fruit won’t be ready until June or July when, hopefully, she can return to research.

As for the robotics project, blackberries flower just once a year. The flowering season is quickly approaching, which means she needs more time to be able to conduct the research.  

“We’re trying to be creative and come up with ways to slow down flowering, including placing some of the plants in coolers to try to hold off flowering,” she said.

Benjamin Walsh, director of Morgantown farms, is also coming up with creative solutions.

He oversees the Animal Science, Organic and Agronomy Farms, and this time of year he and his team are usually busy starting plant projects, preparing research plots and planting crops.

Now, his role is dependent on rearranging priorities and staff.

Since all classes moved online in mid-March, no teaching is being done on the farm. Although managing classes is one less thing to do, Walsh now only has seven to eight people working each day, whereas at the Animal Science Farm alone he’d usually have 18 employees.

“We’re still working every day to take care of the animals and keep up with routine maintenance on the farms. But, now we’re also mowing, spraying and trying to keep up,” he explained. “We’re lucky because we’re able to keep some kind of normalcy and it’s easier to stay isolated.”

With a significantly smaller staff and researchers unable to tend their projects, Walsh pushed research and taking care of the animals to the top of the list.

“Our big push recently was preparing plots for faculty research in Plant and Soil Sciences. Obviously, they have things that have to be done in the spring. If we don’t get them done in the next few weeks, then it will set back a whole year of research,” he said.

A planting season has never been missed, and Walsh is working to ensure it won't happen this year.

He’s not only prioritizing what has to be done now but what has to be done during peak season. May is when the cows will be vaccinated, corn will be planted and hay will need cut at the Animal Science Farm. At the same time, the Agronomy Farm will have more planting and weeding that needs done.

Surprisingly, Walsh said the work is manageable so far.

“We’ll see how we get through May,” he said. “If we get that work done, we’ll be in good shape.”

Crystal Smith, teaching associate professor of animal and nutritional sciences who oversees the equine studies program, is facing some similar as well as unique challenges.

“Prior to the pandemic, I had about double the staff caring for the horses, assisting with hands-on lab based classes and hosting daily events,” she said. “My team of working students has been reduced to four people.”

Those four students volunteered to stay in Morgantown to work with the horses and help maintain the J.W. Ruby Research Farm.

Without having to teach riding labs and weekend events cancelled, she said the work is manageable with a smaller staff.

“Horses are very different from traditional livestock in that they get very individualized care,” Smith explained. “We have some horses with special dietary restrictions, for instance, that require you stick firmly to their feeding, turnout and exercise plan. I literally could not do this without the working students, and I appreciate them more than they know,” she said.