Ayeni a man of many agricultural hats
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Nigeria-raised Dr. Albert Ayeni wears a multitude of “agricultural hats” in his research work at Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, or SEBS.
He said he likes it that way because it keeps him motivated in his research work in greenhouses on the Cook campus from week to week.
Currently, Ayeni switches agricultural hats on a daily basis, overseeing various research projects in the greenhouses and at the Ryders Lane research farm that involve conventional and hydroponic lettuce, African eggplant, pumpkin habanero peppers, palatable versions of bitter leaf — which show promise for helping to control diabetes — fluted pumpkins and Roselle, an edible species of hibisucs.
“Roselle is one of our top ethnic crops,” he said.
Last year, Ayeni added another hat, growing coffee plants in campus greenhouses, exploring the possibility of developing cold-tolerant plants.
Ayeni, a plant biologist and specialty crops expert at SEBS, said he hopes to have enough homegrown roasted coffee to share with fellow faculty members and some students at the university later this spring.
Ayeni earned his doctorate at Cornell University in New York State before coming to Rutgers, at first working out of facilities in Bridgeton in south Jersey.
His father grew coffee on his family’s farm in Nigeria, where as a young boy, Ayeni spent more time than he cares to remember pulling weeds in the hot sun.
“Globally, the big countries are Brazil and Colombia, you cannot talk about coffee without including Colombia, but more recently, countries in East Asia are becoming bigger players, Nepal and other places near there are growing coffee,” Ayeni pointed out.
Coffee requires a relatively cool temperature, so it grows well in higher elevations.
“It doesn’t do well under extremely hot conditions,” he said, gesturing at healthy looking coffee plants he has been growing in a Cook campus greenhouse.
“Our results could head in any direction at this point; one of the problems we are seeing with coffee and cocoa, is the leaves start turning brown around the edges and they drop off. We don’t know yet what is causing this and what is the impact of that kind of disease on the yield and the quality of the yield,” Ayeni said.
“Hopefully soon, we’re going to be able to occupy this entire section of the greenhouse with coffee plants. We have the cocoa room right next door, we want to have the coffee room here,” he said.
Coffee and cocoa are the two most popular beverage crops in the world, and they are affecting the economies of the countries that grow it and the economies of countries that consume it, he said.
“Look at how Starbucks will sell you a cup of coffee for three, four or five bucks, yet the people who grow it in their countries can hardly make 25 cents,” he pointed out, noting the market for fair trade coffee continues to grow in affluent towns around New Jersey.
“There is a lot of labor and effort that goes into production of coffee,” he said.
He and his student assistants are into their second year raising coffee plants in the greenhouse.
Last year, only one of the plants produced much harvestable fruit.
“This year we have four plants. They all produced a good harvest. So we’re going to be harvesting and processing the beans,” he said.
“We’ll take the beans to Law Coffee, our partner roaster in Newark, and they will try them and tell us exactly what they think about the quality of the coffee beans. That will give us a sense of what kinds of quality coffee you can produce under greenhouse conditions.”
Ayeni said he and his colleagues like Thomas Gianfagna, Jim Simon, Joe Heckman, Tom Molnar and others now have the advantage of biotechnology applications that can turn crops that weren’t tolerant of colder temperatures into cold-hardy varieties.
Ayeni said he did not know of any other attempts to grow coffee in New Jersey.
This season, each of Ayeni’s greenhouse-raised coffee plants yielded several pounds of beans.
“We hope that Law Coffee Co., our roaster partner up in Newark, will ship us back some coffee that we can all enjoy here, later this year.”
Ayeni explained how he fell into the coffee growing project.
“I became interested in coffee from an educational point of view, but also because my father used to grow coffee on our farm in Nigeria. When I got here I saw cocoa doing very well here, so I started this project to see if we could get some yields. We’re going to be looking at quality, quantity and doing more focused research. Hopefully, we’ll have a breeder that is interested and we’ll develop a coffee plant that can withstand colder temperatures.”
‘Jersey Fresh’ coffee from the Garden State?
“Nothing is impossible,” he said. “If we can introduce the right genes into the plants, we can develop a plant that will tolerate colder winters. It would be nice if we can grow our own coffee in New Jersey.”
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