Mark Farnham is research leader of the Charleston U.S. Vegetable Laboratory.

Mark Farnham is research leader of the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

CHARLESTON — With everything from heat tolerance in broccoli to root disease in sweet potatoes, high-level research projects were on vivid display at a joint open house hosted by the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory (USVL) and Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center.

The Feb. 24 event included a tour of the USVL’s main building, laboratory and greenhouse facilities and featured 12 research projects that are benefitting farmers in South Carolina and beyond. An overview of farm operations and facilities was also presented. The USVL works in collaboration with Coastal REC, with the two operations virtually across the street from one another.

“The USVL and Coastal REC are high-tech problem-solvers for the agricultural community, both statewide and nationwide,” said Mark Farnham, research leader of the Charleston USVL federal facility, which is one of 90 Agricultural Research Service locations across the nation and overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Ours is a relatively rare situation in that we have Clemson scientists in our USDA building with us. We combine forces to study genetics and breeding, plant pathology, entomology and horticultural practices.”

In Farnham’s introductory speech to more than 100 attendees at the open house, the well-known geneticist spoke about agriculture’s importance to the U.S. economy, surpassing one trillion dollars per year nationwide. In South Carolina, it is the state’s No. 1 industry at close to $42 billion. Farnham emphasized that agriculture’s continued growth is fueled by the discoveries of scientists.

“We’re often asked, ‘who are your customers?’ ” said Farnham, who added that the USVL and Coastal REC have been working side-by-side for more than 80 years. “Well, it’s a long list that includes commodity groups, agricultural societies, vegetable growers, packers and processors, seed companies, agribusiness companies, master gardeners, educators and anyone who is a consumer. What we do is important to everything from mega-companies to individual consumers.”

More than 100 people attended the open house, which included a tour of the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory's main building and greenhouse facilities.

More than 100 people attended the open house, which included a tour of the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory’s main building and greenhouse facilities.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

Here is a breakdown of the research projects that were on display at the open house:

  • Sustainable and Organic Agriculture – researching and identifying practices that promote sustainability in conventional and organic agriculture. Investigators: Brian Ward, William Hanvey, Manning Rushton of Clemson University
  • Watermelon Grafting Methods – demonstrating intensive labor and automated grafting systems along with procedures to reduce the overall cost of producing transplants. Investigators: Richard Hassell, Ward, Mark Schaffer, Rushton, Ginny DuBose of Clemson University
  • Clemson Vegetable Pathology (Clemson Cooperative Extension) – focusing on developing disease management strategies for vegetable growers that are effective, economical and environmentally safe. Investigators: Anthony Keinath, DuBose, Casey Conrad, Gabriel Rennberger, Melanie McMillan of Clemson University
  • Disease Resistance in Cucurbits (watermelons, melons and gourds) – developing germplasm with resistance to fruit rot and powdery mildew for use in commercial breeding programs. Investigators: Shaker Kousik, Jennifer Ikerd, Mihir Mandal, Tyler Perry, Amnon Levi, Patrick Wechter, Hassell of USDA, ARS and Clemson University
  • Genetics of Heat Tolerance in Broccoli – breeding for heat tolerance using a combination of laboratory work, statistics and computational biology. Investigators: Farnham, Sandra Branham and David Couillard of USDA, ARS.
  • Biology and Management of Insect Pests of Vegetables – focusing on increasing knowledge of the arthropod biology and applying it toward the development of management strategies that mitigate the impact of vegetable pests. Investigators: Livy Williams, Phillip Wadl, Ward, Alvin Simmons, Levi, Kai-Shu Ling, USDA, ARS and Clemson University
  • Resistance to Root-Knot Nematodes in Vegetable Crops – identifying genetic sources of resistance to root-knot nematodes in wild vegetable crops collected worldwide. Investigators: Sharon Buckner, Levi, Hassell, Richard Fery, Mike Jackson, Judy Thies of USDA, ARS and Clemson University
  • Development of Watermelon Breeding Lines and Rootstocks with Resistance to Race 2 Fusarium Wilt – developing several breeding lines and rootstocks with high levels of tolerance to this virulent disease. Investigators: Wechter, Hassell, Farnham, Levi, Branham, Kousik of the USDA, ARS and Clemson University
  • Sweet Potato Breeding Research – developing new sweet potato cultivars that have good yields, high quality and resistance to insects and diseases. Investigators: Wadl, Jackson, Ty Phillips of USDA, ARS
  • Resistance of Vegetable Crops against Whiteflies and Associated Plant Viruses – studying plant-whitefly-virus relationships and working to develop improved vegetable crops with resistance to whiteflies and associated plant viruses. Investigators: Alvin Simmons, Levi, Williams, Wadl, Ling, Daniel Hasegawa, Rajagopalbabu Srinivasan, Gloria McCutcheon, Bobbie Blake, Jennifer Cook, Bradford Peck, Paul Wade of USDA, ARS, Claflin University and the University of Georgia
  • Exploiting Genetic Diversity and Genomic Tools to Enhance Disease and Pest Resistance in Watermelon – evaluating diverse watermelon accessions collected throughout the world to enhance disease and pest resistance in watermelon varieties. Investigators: Levi, Massey, Wechter, Ling, Simmons, Kousik, Thies, Matt Horry, Rachel Dawson of USDA, ARS
  • Viral Disease Diagnosis and Management on Vegetable Crops – exploiting novel gene therapy technology to control insects such as whiteflies. Investigators: Ling, Gilliard, Hasegawa, Chellappan Padmanabhan, Xuelian Sui, Louis Miles, Kevin Stewart of the USDA, ARS.


Christopher Ray is director of the Clemson University Experiment Station as well as interim director of Coastal REC.

Christopher Ray is director of the Clemson University Experiment Station as well as interim director of Coastal REC.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Christopher Ray, director of the Clemson University Experiment Station as well as interim director of Coastal REC, said that Clemson’s research center in Charleston and the USDA laboratory complement each other as well as any pair of agencies in the country.

“It is an incredibly synergistic opportunity for Clemson University to have a vegetable research station co-located with the USDA-U.S. Vegetable Laboratory,” Ray said. “Mark Farnham is the embodiment of collegiality and an important mentor to the USDA and Clemson University faculty and staff. We have enjoyed decades of mutually beneficial collaboration on a wide array of research and Extension projects.”

Ray said the collaboration has made a “tremendously positive” impact on vegetable production in South Carolina and beyond.

“I look forward to many more years of productive work from the team of USDA and Clemson University scientists in Charleston,” Ray added. “The Coastal REC and U.S. Vegetable Laboratory are a great example of the sum of the whole being greater than the individual parts. These two groups have truly benefited those who produce vegetables, as well as all who consume them.”