As warmer weather arrives in Maryland, the state’s rural landscape takes center stage with “pick your own” produce fields drawing thousands of visitors from across the region.
But there’s something many Maryland residents don’t know: a federal lab in Prince George’s County plays a major role in supporting local produce and researching the safety and sustainability of our nation’s agriculture sector.
The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) is part of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the leading U.S. research organization relating to agriculture, animal and plant production and protection, and conservation of natural resources (water, air, and soil). BARC employs some of the nation’s most talented scientists dedicated to researching these very crops, including its own strawberry scientist that helps develop new types of strawberries with longer shelf-lives and stronger flavors.
These ARS scientists work daily to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges. They also keep the country’s food products safe and high-quality; innovate with new technologies to enhance farming capabilities; and keep agriculture as one of the top industries in the U.S.
BARC also focuses on the sustainability of agriculture production, in both the financial and the environmental sense. The office researches methods that do not destroy the environment, or contaminate the air or water, and will also encourage the growth of the agriculture sector for years to come.
With six regional headquarters, Maryland’s BARC facility is the home base for the ARS Northeast region.
“Our team was lucky enough to visit the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center prior to the pandemic hitting Maryland last year. After seeing all they have to offer, we wanted to spread the word about this federal lab that people may not know is in their own backyard,” said Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz.
“This hidden gem is a great example of Maryland’s innovation and impact on the agriculture community—not only locally, but throughout the country,” she said.
With so many different crops in the state, BARC performs a plethora of research surrounding the protection of plants. The center explores biology, like using beneficial insects to control the insects dangerous to crops, and different technologies to encourage organic production. The center also looks at hydrology and remote sensors to determine which crops need more or less water, which not only helps farmers and their products, but impacts preserving the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Sensors have been developed that are much more informative than the naked eye. They can look at the soil and plant and determine what stage the plant is in,” said Dr. Dariusz M. Swietlik, former area director for the Northeast region. “We can do this on a scale for the entire region, or just for smaller crops. This is a benefit for not just Maryland, but the whole country.”
And because of Maryland’s bustling poultry and dairy industries, BARC also has a team of research scientists dedicated to animals. With a major focus on improving the genetics of animals, the facility plays a significant role in boosting chickens' immune systems and improving the production of cow's milk. These scientists also work on finding hogs that are resistant to diseases to support the pork industry, allowing them to produce offspring that carry the resistance quality.
“Most people would never think about this. We usually just think about the farmers and their milk, and not all the research that goes into producing it,” said Dr. Swietlik. “BARC’s role in food safety also deals with preserving the freshness of products and their nutritional quality. We can help facilitate the health of Americans and provide healthy foods that support quality of life.”
One of BARC’s most interesting projects is helping produce new varieties of strawberries for the East Coast.
“Strawberries have to be bred for a specific region, and they have to be adapted to a specific climate and soil conditions,” said Dr. Swietlik. “Those grown in California or Florida look very similar, but the plant itself is quite different. That’s the reason why this breeding has to happen locally in the Mid Atlantic—specifically here in Beltsville.”
When it comes to developing new produce, like the strawberries for instance, there are two parts to the process. First, the new product technology is written about and published through university extensions. Then, BARC can commercialize its inventions with local nurseries. Once transferred, the nurseries propagate the plant and sell it to growers to produce for mass consumption.
With so many agricultural assets to choose from, Maryland is the prime location for the USDA-ARS regional headquarters.
“Maryland is a place where there is a lot of specialty fruit production – like apples, strawberries, etc. – with many direct marketers who grow the fruit and bring it to market,” he said. “And with Maryland’s large population, this creates a lot of opportunities within the industry. It’s a very profitable enterprise.”
“There are many agritourism businesses in Maryland, too,” he continued. “There are plenty of places where people and their families visit and get educated about the field—like how cheese is produced, how fruits are grown, how plants are propagated, and even learn about corn mazes.”
More than 12,250 farms dot the state of Maryland—and make their mark on the state’s economy as well. Learn more about agribusiness in Maryland.
Editors note: Our interview with Dr. Swietlik took place before he retired earlier this year. Dr. Tom Shanower became area director at BARC in March 2021.