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In the weeds

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UMaine graduate student Sonja Birthisel conducts weed management research to find environmentally safe practices producing maximum benefit to Maine farmers.



Sonja Birthisel:

My overarching thesis question is, what can we expect in terms of how climate change might impact weed management here in Maine and what are some adaptive management strategies that are going to be effective now and continue to be effective with the changes we expect to see coming down the road?

Using clear plastic mulches, spread out on top of prepared beds in the springtime, actually heats the soil to temperatures that are hot enough to kill weed seedlings and weed seeds. This could be a really good no-till or reduced tillage, bed preparation method for growing high-value vegetable crops.

One of the major questions I get from farmers when I’ve told them about this project is what does that do to the good soil microbes? I’ve done some researches looking at whether the soil solarization hurts soil microbes, and how the clear plastic compares to using black plastic, silage tarps in the same way, which is a little bit more commonly done. So far, it looks like the clear plastic is working a little bit better and neither of the practices hurt soil microbes very much. That’s good news for our farmers.

Our lab also participates every summer in a program that does bring high school interns to work with university researchers. I’ve been the mentor for a number of student summer projects, and this is a really great opportunity where the high school students from all over the state of Maine get a chance to develop an independent project and carry that out.

One of the students I had this past summer has actually kept working with me through the semester and is going to be co-author on a paper that’s featuring part of her independent projects. That’s really exciting.

My dream is to be a college professor. I would love to be my boss someday at an institution similar to UMaine, where I get to do a mix of research and teaching. I will see where the wind takes me.


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