Harold and Edythe Marshall’s gift of their 300-acre farm to Michigan State University has been a major boon to understanding the ecology of new biofuel crops, producing research results with national impact by scientists at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS).
Under a unique partnership between the Marshalls and MSU, the farmland east of Hickory Corners in Barry County is enabling scientists from the KBS Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) program and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) to conduct unique biofuel research with funding from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.
Harold passed away in 2005 and Edythe had her 95th birthday recently. She still owns the land and under the agreement it will be donated to MSU after she passes.
The Marshall family has owned large tracts of farmland in Barry County since the late 1800s and parcels have been passed from one family member to another over the subsequent decades. In the 1930s and 1940s Harold and his father farmed the land about a mile from where Mrs. Marshall lives today and where the two moved soon after they were married in 1940.
“My father was a groceryman in Battle Creek, where I was born, and he sold meats from local farmers,” Mrs. Marshall said. “I knew Harold but he was afraid of a city girl,” she said with a smile.
“One summer we rented a cottage near here in 1938 and we went to a dance. Harold’s mother told him to dance with me. He did. We married two years later.”
Over the years Harold and Edythe raised dairy cows and later beef cattle and grew crops primarily to feed them. “Harold farmed almost right up to the end and before he died he made sure that the land wasn’t developed.
“I still own the land so that I can get the CRP money, but MSU plants and harvests the crops and does their research.”
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a special program that pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production. MSU sought a special research exemption that allows crops to be grown for research on those lands without jeopardizing payments to Mrs. Marshall.
Dr. Phil Robertson, MSU professor of Ecosystem Science and director of the KBS LTER program, praised the Marshalls for their generosity and forward thinking in making their farm available for research.
“The impact of their donation goes far beyond Hickory Corners and even Michigan as it allows research that informs questions of national scientific impact and science policy,” Robertson said.
“We used the CRP fields, for example, for the first direct assessment of the environmental consequences of converting conservation lands back to production — long speculated about but never measured. And the biofuel research being conducted there is one of the only places in the United States where this sort of research is being pursued at the scale of whole fields.
“The fact is that most research like this is conducted in plots that are a fraction of an acre. Being able to conduct experiments on whole fields makes the research much more relevant because it incorporates the effects of slopes and hilltops and other aspects of natural variability, and also requires the same kind of equipment that farmers use.”
In 2007, while the Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center was being established and KBS was looking for relevant field sites, Mrs. Marshall “graciously gave us permission” to establish the field-size experiments.
“We have four fields on her property that we’re studying intensively,” Robertson said. “One is in the original CRP grasses, one is in continuous corn, one in switchgrass, and one in restored prairie.
“So far research in those fields has produced about a dozen scientific papers, including several in very high profile international journals where they have received a lot of attention.”
“We’re blessed by Mrs. Marshall’s generosity, which has enabled not only new knowledge about sustainable crop production but also has contributed immensely to the education of over a dozen MSU graduate students and postdoctoral scientists—ensuring that the Marshall’s legacy persists well into the next generation and beyond.”