Researcher Profile: Hughie Jones, PhD Student

What is your title?

I’m a PhD student research assistant with the Biometeorology and Soil Physics Group.

What is your research project and what is it all about?

The project that I’m working on is funded by the Farm Adaption Innovator Program. Our project is focused on quantifying how the use of different plastic materials and small greenhouses, known as ‘low tunnels’, can help farmers achieve higher yields and potentially allow them to take advantage of the shoulders of the growing season.

We are interested in how we might be able to use these plastics to change the microclimate of agricultural systems, so that farmers can extend the growing season, protect against frost, and reduce water use.

Plastics are widely used although it’s not so intuitive as to how plastic, a relatively simple material, can change microclimate. We’re trying to get direct measurements of the types of climate changes that occur so that people have access to hard, reliable data which they can use to confirm the applicability and practical usage of plastic material. By increasing the amount of knowledge available we can reduce the amount of guessing involved for farmers, increasing their predictive power.

What’s next for this project?

In 2015 we did a purely mulch experiment, using plastic mulch. In 2016, we did a combination of plastic mulches and plastic coverings over low tunnels. This year we did an experiment with plastic mulch on the ground with low tunnel coverings and were able to successfully grow peppers. We have another two farms where we work besides the UBC Farm, where we perform microclimate measurements and productivity experiments using broccoli and zucchini. We’re close to finishing our project at the UBC Farm, it should end in 2018. We have quite a lot of data and have began to write it all up. This project has gained momentum in the way that it could potentially go further – there are definitely more questions to be answered.

Why does this work matter to you?

I grew up in an agricultural and forest mosaic. I like the outdoors, I like plants, and I’ve been learning more about the atmospheric side of things which has also been very interesting.

At the core, I have a passion for natural systems. I enjoy being in them and there are lots of questions relevant to human well-being and the status of the environment that have yet to be answered. I enjoy the challenge of the work I do. As a personal goal, I want to be challenged. It’s been a great combination of helping people and working with good people. It’s felt like a natural fit.

What surprises you about this work?

It’s surprising how difficult it is to get strong, meaningful results. On the technical side of my work, I’m always really amazed at how much you can heat up the atmosphere using greenhouses and the drastic change that can be accomplished using relatively simplistic materials. You can do some really fascinating things and they can fundamentally change the climate for these crops. This wasn’t so surprising as it was impressive.

I’ve been in grad studies for quite some time so I wasn’t necessarily surprised at how long things can take, but I was surprised at how fast time flies when you’re busy and how you have to force yourself to move to the next step in order to complete something, even though you want to linger on the task at hand.

How important is the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm to your work?

It was really important to have the CSFS at UBC Farm as an avenue where I could do research. There’s a lot of work that goes on at the Farm and at the CSFS that helps to support what I do and it’s taken some of the logistical pains out of my work. Many aspects of my work have been improved by the people at CSFS and the Farm, there is a lot of support there, which is very helpful for researchers.

I’m looking forward to seeing more research come out of the Farm. It’s such a beautiful venue for people and students to come and do research, it should be considered a place that can support a high level of research.

The UBC Farm has also been very helpful in increasing general exposure to my research. Many people may be interested in the research being done, but may not have the access to the view the research. The Farm bridges that gap. There’re hundreds of people that walk by the Farm on various tours and events, which has helped to broaden the audience for my research.

What should people know about the UBC Farm that they probably don’t know?

They should know that it is a research intensive place. It’s a multifunctional space; they’re not only getting food and products out of the Farm but they’re also contributing to community knowledge about what is happening there from a research standpoint. People should know that they are welcome to come and learn about the research happening at the Farm. Agriculture is so central to the lives of each of us, so it’s important for people to come together and enjoy it.

What’s your favourite thing to do at the UBC Farm?

Pick blackberries!