Research led; community focused

Northeast Mississippi Branch Experiment Station

By: Trey Barrett

Research led; community focused

Hiram D. Palmertree North Mississippi Research and Extension Center staff includes (left to right) Dr. Jane Parish, Dr. Bill Burdine, Thomas Horgan, Zack Ivy, Mark Murphy, Chip Riner, Paige Kirk, and Susan Worthy. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Situated on 323 acres along the Coonewah Creek is the Northeast Mississippi Branch Experiment Station located in Verona, Mississippi. The 75-year-old station is part of the larger Hiram D. Palmertree North Mississippi Research and Extension Center (NMREC) also housed there, which provides research through the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and outreach through the MSU Extension Service.

The station's focus has shifted over the years—transitioning from poultry and broiler management research in the 1940s and 50s to dairy replacement heifer management and agronomic row-crop research in the early 1970s. Now, the station's areas of research are horticulture and agronomy.

As part of the NMREC, the experiment station supports its local community by listening to concerns and suggestions of Mississippi agricultural producers which are presented yearly during Producer Advisory Council meetings. During these meetings, each commodity group discusses issues that need to be addressed through research and outreach.

"We get a lot of good information from these meetings," said Dr. Jane Parish, head of the NMREC. "Sometimes we can provide answers quickly, but often it takes time. So, we constantly work toward what those tasks are and what is needed."

The Verona station houses an agronomy unit and horticulture research and education unit. Together, the two units work on various projects, which can range from Christmas tree planting to vegetable production research.

In the agronomy unit, the station is researching corn, soybean, cotton, and other row crops across almost 200 acres.

"We replicate cultivar and strip trials, and we have several graduate students involved with the station through their masters and dissertation projects," said Dr. Bill Burdine, an extension specialist in the agronomy unit.

Burdine, who has worked at MSU for 30 years, earned a bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in agronomy at the university. The extension specialist grew up on a farm and said despite his intentions to become a veterinarian, the switch to agronomy was a great decision for him.

Shannon native Zack Ivy, facilities coordinator, also grew up on a farm, which led him to join the agronomy unit at the Verona station. Ivy began working as an intermittent worker before becoming a fulltime employee in 2012.

Ivy shifted into facilities soon afterward. He said the spontaneity of the job is the best part.

"No two days are the same," said Ivy. "We are very rarely doing the same thing twice."

Another native of Shannon, Mark Murphy, serves as an engineering technician at the Verona station. In his role, Murphy operates, modifies, and repairs equipment such as tractors and combines.

Murphy had prior experience in farm life through his dad and grandfather, which led him to join the Verona station where he has been for the last three years. He said the experience he's gained is his favorite aspect of his job.

Mooreville native Charles "Chip" Riner Jr., also an engineering technician, shared his favorite aspect of working at the station.

"I like that everything is different, and that every day is different," said Riner, who has been at the station for about a year.

Business manager Paige Kirk, a Baldwin native, has been at the Verona station for almost three years. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Kirk began as an office associate before becoming the business manager, a position she was promoted to in September 2022.

"I worked at my parent's construction company every day during the summer, so I always helped out," Kirk said. "After doing that and having family members in business, I became inspired to pursue a business career."

Thomas Horgan, an Ocean Springs native, earned his degree in biology from the University of Southern Mississippi. Horgan was just starting a family when he found an advertisement in the paper stating that the station was starting a horticulture unit.

"I was living in the area, saw the advertisement in the paper, and then applied for the job since I had a young daughter," Horgan said. "I had done some landscaping and gardening work before I applied, so I decided to submit my resume and got an interview shortly afterward."

The horticulture unit at the station began in 1995. Susan Worthy, a senior research associate in the unit, has been at the station for 26 years.

Worthy earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University. She works in ornamental horticulture managing the demonstration orchard and the Magnolia Botanical Gardens at the station.

The garden is one of Worthy's biggest tasks, and she has found joy through her work in the area.

"Nothing makes me happier than when I'm working in the garden and see a family up there together. Seeing a child or family walking around and being in awe of the garden makes me proud," Worthy said.

Connecting with people is a common goal throughout the station, and personnel strive to achieve that goal by working together.

"All of us are here for the same purpose: to research the issues and find answers to the questions that are out there in the community," Parish said.

Not only is collaboration prominent among the employees at the NMREC, but it is prominent outside as well.

The MSU Extension Service's Master Gardener program provides interested individuals with horticulture knowledge an opportunity to give back to their communities and engage in research. This program is a frequent collaborator with the station, providing the Verona team with feedback and assistance when necessary. The Lee County Master Gardeners Association is the largest county program in the Magnolia State and regularly collaborates with the team.

"We get a lot of service and educational hours from our partnership with the Lee County Master Gardener Association," Parish said. "It is great that people know who we are because of the people and organizations who come through here and talk about what we do."

Also working at the Verona station are Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Mark Harrison, senior research associate; and Holli Mitchell, business manager.

In addition to the Northeast Mississippi Branch Experiment Station, three other experiment branch stations in Prairie, Pontotoc, and Holly Springs are aligned under the NMREC. Parish, a professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, has led the center and stations since February 2017.

The essence of community outreach and support is strong at the station under Parish's leadership.

"We just want people to feel like they can come to the station with any questions they might have, and we will find the answers," Parish said. "We want to make life easier for the people in our community through our research and outreach programs."