Plant Genomics Lab experiences Iowa farm

Plant Genomics Lab Experiences Iowa Farming

This fall, 8 members of an Iowa State University corn research lab had an opportunity to experience the corn harvest on an Iowa farm.

The ISU graduate students and staff work in the Plant Genomics Lab of Patrick Schnable, professor of agronomy. They spent an afternoon on the farm of Deb and Gary Keller, who live near Big Wall Lake in Wright County. Deb Keller is chair-elect of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

The Iowa Corn Growers hosted the visit to let graduate students gain an understanding of Iowa’s corn production and get a taste of real-world challenges faced by corn growers in Iowa. The visit was a chance for the students to listen to farmers and understand their needs. They learned that, when doing research, it is important to know all sides of problems and hear from those that research will impact. Also, everyone was given an opportunity to ride in the Keller’s combine to observe the corn harvesting in action.

Wei Wu, the lab manager and an assistant scientist in Schnable’s lab, said attending the farm tour gave the students a better understanding of the operation of a modern farm, from the planting cost, scale, yield, machinery, to the current problems a farm faces. Wu says, “It is hard to believe a 3,000 acre farm only needs three people to manage it.”

The Keller’s fielded questions on corn uses, challenges farmers face and the economics of corn production. They shared a specific challenge they had in the spring — the struggle of planting in heavy, wet and cold soils. Deb Keller spoke about the struggle with herbicide resistant weeds and the potential for mold growth in corn.

Jinliang Yang, a graduate student in interdepartmental genetics and a native of China, said the experience allowed him to see the differences in agriculture across the world.

“I really think the Iowa farmers feed the world, and they provide the most efficient way of farming corn and soybeans,” Yang said. “It is totally different from the way we farm in China. For example, big machines such as combines can complete the harvesting in such a simple way. And more astonishing, it can be guided by GPS and the whole system can be controlled by a computer.”

Yang says in his hometown in northern China a family will normally farm one acre or less. In northern China they would plant wheat or corn and majority of the work is done by hand. Income for farmers in China is very low and majority of the next generation looks for jobs in the city to try to gain more of an income, he said.

Visiting the Deb and Gary Keller farm this harvest season were members of Patrick Schnable’s research lab, including: (left to right) Schnable, professor of agronomy; Mitzi Wilkenging, research associate; Deb & Gary Keller; Jinliang Yang, interdepartmental genetics; Kia Ying, interdepartmental genetics; Shu-Ting Tsao, administrative specialist; Cheng-Ting “Eddy” Yeh, bioinformatics analysis/systems support specialist. (Not pictured: Wei Wu, lab manager/assistant scientist; Marianne Smith, microscopy specialist/research associate.) Photo by Patrick S. Schnable, Baker Professor of Agronomy, Director, Center for Plant Genomics,, 515-294-0975