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Published June 09, 2014, 09:54 AM

Science explores turfgrass, irrigation

WASHINGTON — A University of Minnesota student who has developed a drought-resistant turfgrass seed mixture was among the 100 students to exhibit his project at the recent White House Science Fair.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — A University of Minnesota student who has developed a drought-resistant turfgrass seed mixture was among the 100 students to exhibit his project at the recent White House Science Fair.

The fair, held May 27, featured more than 100 students from more than 30 states who have won science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions around the country, exhibiting their work before President Barack Obama and an audience of students, science educators and business leaders.

Connor Klemenhagen, 19, of Champlin, Minn., told Agweek at the event that he was inspired to explore the science of turfgrass after a seventh-grade field trip to an ecosystem reserve. He also worked on a farm in 2011 moving irrigation lines and observed how much irrigation water farms need. He then learned that if football fields, golf courses and residential lawns are added up, turfgrass is the largest irrigated crop in the U.S. — occupying more land area than corn, wheat and soybeans combined.

Klemenhagen noted in a paper distributed at the White House that Americans use 30 to 60 percent of their residential water for lawn irrigation and that “This unsustainable consumption of precious resources on a massive scale provides substantial and essential reason to reduce the amount of water used by our lawns.”

Klemenhagen said he compared turfgrass to prairie grass, which is sustainable without irrigation, and researched what grasses might be mixed together to reduce water needs but maintain the appearance expected. He concluded that a mixture of Hard Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass or Tall Fescue and kentucky Bluegrass would use 8.2 percent water and maintain the visual aesthetics of current lawns.

In a brief but severe drought, a one-acre lawn with this mixture would use 3,500 fewer gallons of water than a conventional lawn, he said.

Klemenhagen’s research won the 2013 National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. He is a cadet in the Army ROTC program.

Obama, who toured more than 100 exhibits, told the students, “This is one of my favorite things all year long.”

Noting he had enjoyed hosting the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks the week before, Obama said, “But what’s happening here is more important. As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners.” And this year, he noted, the White House is placing special emphasis on recognizing “all the amazing girls and young women who are excelling at science and technology and engineering and math.”

Other students chosen to display their work at this year’s fair included a group of Delaware middle school students with a plan to reduce food waste in landfills, and a Connecticut student who uses earthworms to prevent the spread of plant-borne E coli.

Soil-borne diseases

Anne Merrill, 17, of Old Greenwich, Conn., studied natural, nonchemical methods for suppressing soil-borne diseases. She looked at how “biochars,” a charcoal-like material created by burning organic waste to sequester carbon, can be integrated into topsoil by earthworms as they burrow and digest soil. Her results suggest that combining the natural methods of earthworm bioturbation with biochars in soil could help reduce carbon emissions, prevent the spread of plant-borne E. coli, and increase agricultural yields. Merrill is president of her high school’s art club, has exhibited her nature-inspired art in several shows, and placed first in Princeton University’s Playwriting Competition.

The fair also provided an opportunity for two female students from Sumner, Wash., to wear their FFA jackets at the White House.

Celine Patrick and Ashlee Tarro, won first place in the plant division at the 2013 National FFA Agriscience Fair, for their research on how to control aphids. While Tarro stood on the stage with Obama, Patrick told Agweek the story of their project.

“In our school’s greenhouse, we were having a serious infestation of aphids – or plant lice,” Patrick said. “We didn’t want to have to resort to the use of harsh pesticides to try and eliminate the infestation.”

The answer turned out to be confining ladybugs in the greenhouse so the aphids were the ladybugs’ only source of food, Patrick said.