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A tour of 'The Farm' at the University of Arkansas

Josh Droll
The Milo J. Shult Agricultural Experiment Station can be seen from Garland Avenue in Fayetteville.

Seven minutes north of the University of Arkansas campus, along both sides of Garland Avenue, is the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Experiment Station. Though, most know it by a much more endearing name: the farm.

It is the first and primary research station of the university, established under a separate partner name: the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, or UADA. All areas of study in the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture have a presence on this 11-acre campus. The goal of research stations like this one is to study agriculturally important components of the environment unique to the local area. Established in the late 1800s, they serve as a means to collect, interpret, and share data with the local community to benefit northwest Arkansas.

Yet, this campus is unfamiliar to most students. So for those uninitiated, we go on the hunt to determine what kind of research goes on at the farm.

It all starts when we hop into Dr. Vaughn Skipper's truck outside of the Don Tyson Agricultural Center. He's the director of research at the experiment station. We spend the morning driving around the campus, offering just a taste of what kind of research is done right here in Fayetteville.

The first stop is at the animal science building with researcher and professor of animal science, Kelly Vierck. After being introduced, we drive a little further to a metal barn just behind the Pauline Whitaker Animal Science arena. It's used as a teaching space.

“So if you come on in here,” Vierck said, walking through the barn, “we have pens available for sheep and other livestock that we bring up. Generally, it's going to be sheep in this barn, but we also have the ability to handle cattle as well.

“Out to the far—not sure what direction that is, I think that's the east side—We have our ranch horse team, barn, and arena. So we have people that participate in the ranch horse team as well, which works with…basically, horse handling maneuvers, and handling cattle properly on horseback is part of what they do with that.

“And so, this is just a really great teaching space for our students, which about 80% of our department are pre-vet students. And so, they get the opportunity for hands-on handling of livestock animals in this barn.”

While most animals are either taking the day off or not in the barn, there are still plenty of sheep, goats, and a ram. All of the animals serve their separate tasks and as a means for students to learn livestock husbandry, or how to care for these animals. This work has an enormous scale from administering vaccinations to shearing sheep to clipping hooves.

“And why is it so important to make sure those hooves are trimmed?” I ask.

“Just like in people,” Vierck said, “if you have overgrown hooves, or overgrown nails, or ingrown nails, it can actually hurt the animal's health. We also want to check and make sure—especially in the damp weather that we've been having—that there’s no foot infections or something that we call foot rot. And so that[‘s when the] tissue starts to decay and it's got a very unique smell, and it's not a good one.

“And so we want to make sure that their feet are good because if you think about it, sheep and cattle are out on a pasture, and so they have to be able to walk around and not hurt themselves by getting, like their hooves caught on something. And so just really good animal husbandry for that is just keeping them short and trimmed. And it also makes them less likely to injure themselves as well.”

Walking into the barn, the expectation was to be bombarded with sound from the noisy animals that kind of seemed typical of most farm movies. But it was quiet.

“The good thing is they're not bleating because they're happy and content,” Vierck said. “I mean, they're just hanging out and relaxing right now.”

While walking around the barn, tags are seen hanging from the ears of some sheep.

“They're either breeder donated,” Vierck said, “and so they'll go back to their breeder, or they're part of the station because we do have a couple of goats floating around. But I think these are all breeder donated based off of their tags. So, we'll return them back to their breeders here whenever they're ready to pick them up.”

Primarily, Vierck said they're used for local contests, and then the donors collect them.

As we continue, something catches us off guard.

“I see one of them—I see of them scratching,” I begin.

“Yeah,” Vierck said. “I love goats but they're they're quirky little things.”

During the interview, this ram began to scratch its back end against the plastic feed, locking eyes the whole time.

“And so the thing is,” Veirck said, “goats are also escape artists. So that's why we need to put them in a pen like this. They like to escape and run away from things. Sheep are a lot more content to just hang out and chill.”

Outside of being an educator, Vierck said she spends the majority of her time as a researcher.

“I focus…primarily in meat science and beef palatability,” Vierck said. “So I joke that it's my job to make steaks taste good, or steaks taste bad, and try to figure out what happened there and why do they taste different.”

Naturally, hard-hitting questions came first.

“And maybe this is sort of like a loaded question, but what makes like, what makes like a good steak?” I say.

“Hoo, that is a loaded question,” Vierck replies. “And I get asked that quite a bit. And so for me, and what the research says is we have to have good marbling. So the little flecks of fat in a steak, we want to have a lot of those.

“And you want to get that steak from a good muscle group. And what I mean by that is the supportive muscles. So we basically split muscles into two major types: we have our locomotion muscles, which help that calf get up and walk around—and there's a lot more connective tissue involved with those muscles because if you think about it, they put in a lot more work than your supportive muscles that are along your spine. They're basically making sure that the spine doesn't go wonky.

“So they're pretty lazy, but that makes them more tender.”

There are a lot of practices that can increase marbling, which Varrick calls the “propensity for marbling.” But, she offers advice on meat that's already sitting on shelves in your grocery store.

“One thing that consumers are a little bit gun shy or maybe a little bit afraid of are the vacuum-sealed packages,” Vierck said, “because that steak is purple and not red like you typically expect to see. But that's because we're restricting oxygen and preventing something that we call oxidation. And so, that can really improve a lot of our flavor traits and tenderness traits down the road as that consumer purchases that steak as well. So don't be afraid of the vacuum package.”

After that, we get back in the truck and make it to the Food Science building on the other side of Garland. There, Dr. Renee Threlfall, an assistant professor and wine researcher within the Department of Food Science, shows us inside the building that has been improved upon since the 1950s.

We stand in a section of D-wing, an expansion of the original building, where pictures of the faculty hang on the wall. Dr. Threlfall's picture smiles from behind one of the frames.

She attended the U of A as a biology undergrad originally. But the idea of going to grad school in Food Science occurred to her during one of her most pleasant summer jobs.

“Septic systems and sampling,” Threlfall said. “You can imagine how awesome that was in the summertime. It really was terrible. And one of the guys in the lab said, ‘Hey, I hear they'll pay you to go to graduate school in food science,’ and I was like, sign me up.

“And so I came over here, and I got to meet with two people. I got to meet with Dr. Ronald Buescher, who did pickle research. He's a world-renowned pickle researcher. He's retired now but he still is very much—was very well-known for that work because they were interested in my microbiology degree for that pickle-making.

“And the other professor was Dr. Justin Morris, and Dr. Justin Morris was a world-renowned enologist and viticulturist—so grape and wine production. So I was, I think 21. So which would you have chosen, pickles or wine for your research? I chose wine.”

We begin our tour down a narrow hallway in the C-wing.

“My lab is closed,” Threlfall said, leading us down the hallway. “That might be on me, but that's my wine room. This is the pilot plant facility. And so this is where—now this is called the Arkansas Food Innovation Center. And so the Arkansas Food Innovation Center is where entrepreneurs and growers come to make commercial products to sell [at] the grocery store.

“But researchers can also use this facility to investigate certain aspects of food production, depending on if it's in a pack, a can, or a jar, or a pouch, or however it is produced.”

What would the process look like if someone wanted to patent grandma's cookie recipe?

“So you have, you know, grandma's cookie recipe or whatever, right?” Threllfall said. “And you want to make it. So, he will talk you through the process of what you want to do and what you have to do to set up your business.”

“And what big products have come through this room?” I ask.

“Ah, anything over here,” Threllfall replies.

She goes to a glass display attached to the wall. Inside, there are various jars and bags of anything from honey to syrups to vegan nuggets.

We trek on through research being done with beer, rice, and soybeans to the sensory science section of the building. That's where taste testing happens.

“So this is the facility,” Threlfall said. “I don’t think anything’s happening today yet.”

Oh, yeah,” she starts to whisper, “something is happening. So, come in and see all the people in there? They’re doing their tests.”

“So they’re just taste testing?” I whisper.

“Yes,” Threlfall said. “Yeah, so they’re taste testing. So what happens is they'll send out a recruiter email. They have about 6,000 people in their database and it’ll be like a survey you fill out. And they're usually looking for something in particular, like whether it's…females or males of a certain age group or a certain demographic. And then, you'll get recruited to come in, and you get paid with a gift card to come in and taste the products.”

Unfortunately, that is also where our taste comes to an end. We enter the campus with no knowledge of the research being done and leave knowing there will never be enough time to cover it all.

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Josh Droll is a student at the University of Arkansas and a contributor to Ozarks at Large.
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