MONMOUTH — Situated atop Norris Hill on U.S. Route 202 in the western part of town, Highmoor Farm has been a center for research into apple growing, other fruit and vegetables, and crop pests for more than a century.
Now the University of Maine Agricultural Experiment Station is leading the fight against a newly discovered strain of fruit fly that poses a serious threat Maine’s berry crops.
David Handley, an extension agent who has worked at Highmoor since 1983, is behind the efforts to stop spotted wing drosophila, the breed of fruit fly that originated in Asia and then migrated to the American South. It first turned up in the Northeast in the summer of 2011.
Drosophila can lay eggs on strawberries and raspberries before they are ripe. The larvae then hatch after the berries are ripe and begin eating the fruit, making the berries soft and mushy, Handley said.
“It’s fairly easy to kill, if you have the right chemicals,” he said. “A problem is you might want to use a pesticide at the same time that you want to harvest the fruit.”
Highmoor Farm is one of five farms run by the University of Maine College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture that aim to help Maine farmers find crops with the best yields and quality.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service also has a presence at Highmoor Farm, doing outreach and education with about 200 commercial growers in Maine. That research now is centered on the newly discovered strain of fruit fly.
Greg Koller, superintendent at Highmoor Farm since 2004, lives year-around at Highmoor Farm with his wife, Sheri, and their two high school-age sons. Koller said scab tolerance in cucumbers was an important vegetable feature that was developed at Highmoor Farm. Brock apples, a sweet and juicy variety that ripens in early October, also were developed at Highmoor.
“We research integrated pest management,” Koller said. “It used to be that people sprayed on a schedule, no matter what. Now we try to spread it out and only spray when we need to. With this new fruit fly, we hope to use other natural enemies of the fly.”
During the summer, Handley uses four University of Maine students who go out on the road to berry farms to check on traps that are set for drosophila flies and other pests.
Many pests can’t survive winter in Maine, Handley said, but drosophila might be able to so.
Handley said the pesticide Spinosad, derived from a fungus, so far has proved most effective against the flies.
“We can control it, but it’s a lot of effort and a lot of cost,” Handley said. “It’s a new pest, so we haven’t developed alternatives for this. I don’t think there’s an easy answer for this.”
MORE ABOUT HIGHMOOR
According to an article by David C. Smith, “A History of the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station, 1885-1978,” the farm buildings at Highmoor were built by James Roscoe Day in 1880 as a summer home. Day also planted some 5,000 apple trees.
By 1907, the farm was owned by F.H. Mundy. When the state of Maine bought the farm and turned it over to the University of Maine in 1909, the apple orchards had deteriorated and there were only 3,100 apple trees left. Most of them were in poor condition.
By 1910, Highmoor’s orchard had been culled to a total of 2,300 trees. Highmoor produced only 200 barrels of apples in 1909, but by 1912, its production had risen to 3,200 barrels.
Highmoor Farm today includes a large farmhouse, two large barns, two laboratories, a shop, 10 cold-storage lockers, two hoop houses and a greenhouse. The farm encompasses 278 acres, with 17 acres of apple orchards and 5 acres of tilled fields for vegetable and small fruit research.
Besides Greg Koller and David Handley, staff members at Highmoor Farm include apple specialist Renae Moran, researcher and Extension agent Mark Hutton and Mark Hutchinson, who runs the composting education program.
Koller said Highmoor hosts the Maine Compost School twice a year, for one week each session. He said it attracts students from around the world. Highmoor also cooperates with the town of Monmouth on composting.