Dixon Spring overhead

Specialty crop growers in southern Illinois have a renewed resource, as the University of Illinois has decided to revive its horticulture research program at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center.

Row-crop and specialty crop research was discontinued when the university shuttered the programs in a cost-cutting move in 2016.

Kim Kidwell, dean of the university’s ag college, has agreed to bring back at least part of the research that was shelved.

“I’m thrilled that we are going to get those facilities up and going again,” said Suzanne Bissonnette, an Extension Integrated Pest Management educator.

The Pope County facility, in the southern tip of Illinois, is the oldest and largest of the university’s ag research centers. Founded in 1934, it encompasses about 5,000 acres and hosts one of the largest beef research centers east of the Mississippi River.

Two years ago, the university scaled back its off-campus ag research, shuttering the crop science and horticulture programs at Dixon Springs, Brownstown, Dekalb and St. Charles. The Beef Center remained at Dixon Springs.

During a visit to the region last year, Kidwell was impressed with the facilities and was persuaded to bring back fruit and vegetable research to the iconic center, whose main building was constructed from native stone during the Depression, as a Civilian Conservation Corps project.

The horticultural research portion of the Dixon Springs center was anchored by a large greenhouse and three hoop houses in which fruits and vegetables were grown. Research projects have included a wide array of crops over the years, including mushrooms and tobacco. A small orchard and blueberry patch are gone, however.

Connie Beck, an Extension county director, was among those who pushed for the re-opening of the horticulture portion of DSAC. Her office, which covers six counties in southeastern Illinois, is at the center. During Kidwell’s visit, Beck asked the dean if staff could have access to the greenhouse. Kidwell went further, offering the opening of other research.

The response to the reopening has lifted residents in the region, who have long considered Dixon Springs an important local resource.

“We’ve had tremendous community support,” Beck said. “The community is behind it. The local government is behind it. We had a volunteer day in December, and there were so many offers we had to turn some people down.”

Beck said workers will install drains and replace covers on the hoop houses. Tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy greens will be grown in them.

An open house is scheduled for May. Educational programs aimed at commercial specialty crops growers will also be held at the center.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.