OARDC researchers Sally Miller, above, and Jeff LeJeune (next photo) are studying additional ways to prevent pathogens in the food supply.

Hungry for Knowledge

Whether you grow your own produce or buy meat from the deli counter, researchers at the Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster are working to ensure safer and more effective ways of getting it to your table.

The food safety and production projects below are just a few of the hundreds of research studies under way at OARDC, whose mission is to provide unbiased research on food, agriculture, family and the environment.

Making the food supply safer
“The United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world,” said Jeff LeJeune, an associate professor who studies foodborne pathogens. “The challenge becomes finding where in the multiple stages from the farm to the table the process might break down. Something could happen at the farm, at the grocer or even when a consumer cuts meat on a cutting board and then chops a salad with the same knife.”

LeJeune is conducting a number of research studies relating to E. coli 157. Food safety practices have historically focused on preventing E. coli in ground beef and, more recently, in vegetables, and LeJeune is studying how it enters the food supply. “We approach our research with ‘shoe leather epidemiology’—similar to a crime scene investigation—where we look at the evidence globally clear down to the molecular DNA level to analyze trends,” he said.

Projects he is working on include how a cow’s diet affects E. coli prevalence and how birds transmit E. coli. He also is studying how E. coli might contaminate leafy green vegetables. “We’re not sure how it occurs,” he said. “We’re looking at all kinds of sources from birds, to water or runoff, to livestock or faulty septic systems.
“Once we know more from all these studies, we’ll be able to recommend best practices to farmers to help them lessen E. coli in the food supply,” he said. “Everyone has a responsibility and role in the food chain, from the farmer, to the retailer to the consumer. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re making great strides.”

Turning parking lots into gardens
Joseph Kovach, associate professor in the Department of Entomology, is hoping to help urban residents find more efficient ways to have access to affordable, nutritious food. Last fall he began a three-year, side-by-side comparison growing fruit trees and vegetables on 30-inch high raised beds on top of asphalt, in pots and containers on turf grass and in 3-foot by 30-foot trenches and alleys cut into asphalt. He’ll replicate plantings of apples, peaches, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, green beans and strawberries under each of the three systems.

“There are so many abandoned parking lots in urban areas like Cleveland and Youngstown,” Kovach said.

“We’ll study not only the techniques that produce the best yields, but also which attract the most pests and which method is most cost-effective. Being able to recommend better practices to urban growers could really help create greater access to locally-grown food.”

Kovach will study whether “depaving” the entire parking lot works better than digging trenches, and whether ankle- or knee-high raised beds fair better, as well as what freezing, drying or overheating problems occur.

The greenhouse effect
Matt Kleinhenz, an OARDC vegetable crop specialist, studies high tunnel management. High tunnels are open metal frames covered with clear plastic that create a protective zone around crops. The tunnels increase harvest from every square foot of land, using less time and resources.

“Farming is always difficult, but it can be especially challenging in places like Ohio where (weather) conditions are unpredictable and can harm crops quickly. High tunnel use allows farmers to use time and other resources very effectively,” Kleinhenz said. “It also increases the availability of high quality Ohio-grown produce January through December and can lead to more jobs, too. These simple structures can have profound positive impacts on the environment and in homes and businesses.”

Connie Lechleitner is a freelance writer from New Philadelphia.

A full plate
At any given time, OARDC says its scientists are engaged in more than 400 research projects in the areas of agricultural, environmental and development economics; food, agricultural and biological engineering; animal sciences; entomology; food animal health; food science and technology; horticulture and crop science; human and community resource development; human ecology; natural resources; and plant pathology. Find out more at www.oardc.ohio-state.edu.