Thomas Björkman

Thomas Björkman

Associate Professor

My research covers the range from discovering basic biological principles, to direct application in commercial settings. I study the effects of environmental stimuli on growth and development, particularly as applied to vegetable production. Current work in flowering includes discovering how temperature regulates the transition from inflorescence to flower in broccoli using the tools of functional genomics. I also have a strong interest in improving agricultural production through better integration, including work on cover crops that fill management goals for vegetable producers. Cover crops have physiological processes with valuable management benefits that complement the needs of vegetable growers. I am leading two multi-state research and extension teams. One seeks to make summer cover crops a standard practice on organic vegetable farms in the Great Lakes region. The other will establish a year-round Eastern broccoli industry by developing commercial varieties from existing germplasm that tolerates our growing conditions, developing grower networks in six Eastern locations that can collectively provide year-round harvest, and developing a distribution network to serve major Eastern markets.

Research Focus

A major are of applied research is in the mechanism whereby cover crops can overcome limitations in soil quality and contribute to weed management in vegetable production systems. Significant funding was obtained in 2009 to develop multi-institutional programs to this end.

My basic research focuses on how development is arrested in the inflorescence of Brassica oleracea. A superb model system for this process is broccoli, a close relative of the well-studied Arabidopsis, and, with cauliflower, an extreme expression of such developmental arrest. Furthermore, precise control of this arrest is a critical management issue for a billion-dollar part of the vegetable industry. My lab investigates the role of homeotic genes believed to control developmental transition during this process. My related applied research involves facilitating selection for broccoli that consistently avoids premature arrest that is normally induced by high temperatures during the main growing season. Major funding was received in 2010 for and integrated project to establish an eastern broccoli industry based on new varieties derived from these selections.

Outreach and Extension Focus

I am the primary contact for cover crop use in vegetable production. The intensity of vegetable production necessitates active soil improvement regimes. Cover crops play an essential role in soil improvement as well as pest and weed management and biological nitrogen fertilization. Introduction of cover crops requires a systemic analysis of production systems, their constraints and limitations. Outreach on soil improving aspects are designed to fill prescriptions produced by the Cornell Soil Health Test. This work is particularly valued by the rapidly growing organic industry. Current new outreach activity focuses on the use of short cycle cover crops during the growing season, which is a useful practice for which guidelines have not yet been established. Supporting my extension work, I do applied research on physiology of summer cover crops in relation to their competitiveness against weeds, and their ability to improve soil condition. I also lead the extension for buckwheat grain production, and am a resource for non-pathogenic storage disorders in cabbage.