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'Farm kid from Wisconsin' fights bugs with bugs and oversees $5 million for research

Growing up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, Mike Hoffmann's childhood playground was a natural wonderland with bugs, horses, even pet crows he trained to ride behind his saddle while cantering through the woods.

But it wasn't until a decade later, during his first years in college at the University of Wisconsin, that Hoffmann's early fascination with all life forms and the environment catalyzed into what would become a distinguished career in entomology. He remembers reading a paper on integrated pest management (IPM) -- then a novel idea of using nature's resources to grow food with fewer risks to the environment -- and immediately realizing the potential.

"At the time IPM was still a relatively new concept," says Hoffmann, Cornell professor of entomology and director of Cornell's Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES). "For me it was as if a light bulb went off. Here was a way to bring together my interest in food production with my concern about the environment."

Since then, Hoffmann's research has focused on discovering biological controls to help suppress or manage "bad" plant pests. Today, his insect of choice is the Trichogramma ostriniae, a tiny creature with a complicated name that is a natural enemy of the European corn borer, a pest that is a particular nightmare for sweet corn and pepper growers. Released into sweet corn crops early in the summer, the helpful Trichogramma lay their eggs in corn borer eggs and then the offspring feed on the developing borer larvae, essentially stopping the harmful pests before they start. Hoffmann's lab maintains a colony of Trichogramma, originally a native of China, producing millions each year, which are then released in corn fields across New York and several other states and Canada. In recent years, Hoffmann has also been experimenting with biodegradable fibers, which are sprayed on plants to foil pests, a unique approach to pest management that has received national media attention.

As director of CUAES, one of Hoffmann's top priorities is to create a "culture of sustainability" for the station's 40-plus employees and the farms, greenhouse complexes, forests and research plots it manages for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). CUAES is instituting change from the ground up -- from such environmentally friendly policies as low-till or no-till farming to better management of forests for carbon sequestration -- to demonstrate that sustainable practices can be done in a cost-effective manner consistent with President David Skorton's commitment to climate neutrality.

"Addressing environmental challenges, such as climate change, is something that Cornell is uniquely positioned to do," says Hoffmann. "And part of this is practicing what we preach, putting into action the results of all the extraordinary research at this institution to create positive change right here."

Hoffmann is well acquainted with the gold mine of Cornell research and its impact. The station administers $5.1 million to research projects funded by "federal formula funds" that Cornell receives as a land-grant university. In coordination with the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva and Cornell Cooperative Extension, CUAES awards the funds annually based on needs identified not only by researchers, but also by farmers, youth workers, business leaders, extension specialists and other stakeholders who depend on Cornell for cutting-edge research and problem solving. The current portfolio of about 240 projects in CALS and the Colleges of Human Ecology and of Veterinary Medicine covers a broad range of issues, from biofuels to teenage obesity, global climate change to dairy production. These projects are expected to accomplish specific objectives and advance knowledge on many fronts, but they may also serve as "seed" money that researchers use to initiate projects that, once they have borne fruit, attract bigger funding from other government or private sources.

A member of the Cornell faculty since 1990, Hoffmann still refers to his roots as a "farm kid from Wisconsin." Recently, he began riding horses again, taking polo lessons at Oxley Equestrian Center, though this time, with a mallet in hand and without the pet crow riding behind him.

Lauren Chambliss is a communications specialist with the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca.

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