(Richland Center, Wis) - Located six miles west of the City of Richland Center and a five-minute drive from the University of Wisconsin-Richland campus, the UW-Richland Smart Farm (Smart Farm) is positioned in the Driftless Region of southwest Wisconsin. Previously owned by Joe and Mae Smart, the 192-acre former dairy operation was donated to the Richland County Campus Foundation in 2005 upon Mae’s death. To continue the Smart’s dream that their farm would foster learning opportunities for future generations, the foundation has developed the farm to be an educational and research resource for the region.
In 2015, UW-Richland hired Dr. Mathew Vankoughnett as an assistant professor of biology as well as research director of the UW-Richland Smart Farm, overseeing the continued research evolution of the farm. Vankoughnett advises UW-Richland’s natural resources program, participates in national research projects, and oversees research being done by current UW-Richland students. Presently, there are three students conducting separate research projects at the Smart Farm. Kelsey Thorell of Wonewoc is studying how predicted winter climate change (low snow accumulation) affect nutrient leaching amounts from ecosystems. Low snow accumulations cause the soil to freeze. In this case, snow no longer acts as a soil insulator, resulting in cold air temperatures freezing the soil, causing damage to the ecosystem making them leaky. “Basically, we are answering if winter climate change makes ecosystems become leaky, how long will they stay leaky for and what nutrients are the ecosystems losing,” Vankoughnett explains.
UW-Richland student Heather Wilson of Richland Center is pursuing an Associate’s Degree with emphasis in biological studies. She hopes to transfer to UW-Stevens Point to earn a bachelor's degree in wildlife ecology. Wilson is performing research at the Smart Farm, investigating how predicted winter climate change affects decomposition. Decomposition, as Vankoughnett elaborates, “is an important seasonal ecosystem process that allows nutrients taken up by plants to reenter the soil.” This study will answer how winter climate change will affect the rates at which nutrients reenter back into the ecosystem, and investigate if winter climate change will cause more nutrients to re-enter the soil over winter, when plants are inactive, leaving these nutrients susceptible to being leached, and resulting in less nutrients being available to plants over the growing season. “This research project is helping me gain experience in organizing and conducting a scientific research project which is a skill I will need as a continuing biology student and a wildlife ecologist. The opportunity to have research projects that students can participate in is something many students should take advantage of, especially if they are pursuing any kind of biology degree and/or career,” Wilson encourages.
A third UW-Richland student, Sarah Fick of Hillsboro, studies at the Smart Farm to predict how winter climate change will affect the seedling survival of various common Wisconsin tree species. Vankoughnett guides his students, explaining that tree seedlings are normally completely snow covered their first few years; however, if climate change reduces the natural ground insulation the snow provides, this leaves seedlings susceptible to freezing air temperatures that they would not normally be exposed to. “We do not know how being exposed will affect the survival of tree seedlings. This study will tell us what Wisconsin species are able to survive and not survive the freezing exposure,” he adds. Over time, these effects may change what types of trees survive and grow in the area. “You won’t see a change over a 20-year range, but in 80 to 100 years you could see changes. When you think about it in an ecological sense, it’s pretty fast,” Vankoughnett adds. Fick, who is pursuing a degree in radiology, is researching how snow cover affects the freezing of soil and the success of tree seedlings in those conditions. “This experience gives me the resources to run my own project and understand how to conduct my own experiment. The Smart Farm has been extremely beneficial…to have my own research facility attached to the campus. Working with the Smart Farm has given me an opportunity to conduct individual projects and to grow my research capabilities,” Fick explains.
Vankoughnett is currently participating in three national collaborative research projects. In one, Vankoughnett removes snow from a plot of land to mimic the loss of snow cover as the result of climate change. He then studies how the frozen soil and increased drought affects plant productivity and species composition. The second national experiment is called “Drought-net” which reduces the amount of rain by erecting “rain out shelters” over small plots of land. This reduces the amount of rain that’s expected due to climate change and then studies how that affects local plant species. Finally, the Global Invader Impact Network looks at whether or not the removal of invasive species results in the soil at that location recover to its original makeup prior to the invasive’s presence. Each of the current studies at the Smart Farm is in very early stages. Vankoughnett is looking forward to learning their results and comparing them to similar experiments in other parts of the world.
For future research development, Vankoughnett continues to collaborate with companies and individuals. “We’re pretty open about what research we do at the Smart Farm, both basic and applied,” he said about what the future holds for the facility. “What we’d like to do is get industry involved and help them solve needs that they have, especially as it deals with climate change,” he elaborates. He cited the possibility of working with area vineyards and apple orchards as potential partners for applied research to help them improve their operations in relation to future climate. On the traditional research side, Vankoughnett said the farm is positioned very well because it has three unique ecosystems: agriculture, forests, and old field ecosystems.
Owned and managed by the Richland County Campus Foundation, the Smart Farm property has undergone improvements totaling more than $250,000 which have positioned the farm to be both sustainable and practical for those living and working there. A geo-thermal system has been installed; new septic, water, and electrical lines have been added; and two dozen 200-watt solar panels have been erected that give the existing farmhouse a Tier-2 energy rating. In addition, the historic barn has been remodeled in a way to host gatherings for both small and large groups, more than 5,000 trees have been planted to help maintain the existing timber stand, and a host of trails have been developed for public use.
For more information about the Smart Farm or availability of facilities for rent, contact the Richland County Campus Foundation or visit uwrichlandsmartfarm.org. For more information about research opportunities at the Smart Farm, contact Dr. Mat Vankoughnett at email@example.com. For information about UW-Richland visit richland.uwc.edu.
Photo DSC_0440 caption: Sarah Fick of Hillsboro is focusing her Smart Farm research on the success of tree seedlings with varying degrees of winter snow cover.