The late ’60s through the late ’90s were glory days at Michigan State University (MSU), a golden age for floriculture mirroring the rise of the bedding plant industry and then perennials. This leadership came from emeritus professors Will Carlson as the lead floriculture Extension agent and Royal Heins as the leading scientist and plant physiologist.
“Will and I each had different strengths, which we were able to combine to build a strong floriculture research, teaching and Extension program at MSU,” Royal says. “Will was a big idea person with a skill of fundraising while I tended to be more of a detail person and information generator. Will focused on fundraising and methods to disseminate information while I worked with the research team to generate new knowledge through the research program.”
In many ways, Will was the face of floriculture at MSU–a business agent and promoter. We’ve been very fortunate at Greenhouse Grower to publish Will’s columns and the results of MSU’s cutting-edge research and present them as packaged series for growers: using temperature to control plant growth (DIF), plug storage, graphical tracking to model plant growth and flowering, and unlocking the mysteries of forcing perennials into flower.
Together, Will and Royal showed growers the data and the road to profits. This was truly applied research growers would derive a direct benefit from in a relatively short period of time. Their findings helped growers reduce costs while increasing quality and consistency and made Michigan growers the General Motors of the bedding plant industry.
Another side benefit to all this research was cultivating the next generation of floriculture faculty. MSU grads leading today’s floriculture programs include: John Erwin at the University of Minnesota, Paul Fisher at the University of Florida, Jim Faust at Clemson University, John Dole at North Carolina State University, Roberto Lopez at Purdue University and Erik Runkle, who has assumed both Will’s and Royal’s roles at MSU.
But the world has changed at MSU and Land-Grant universities nationwide the last 10 years. At MSU, funds are no longer provided from the horticulture department or experiment stations to faculty, who used to have funds to partially cover technicians and graduate students. Will was ahead of his time as a faculty member raising money for projects and programs. Now it’s mandatory.
Twelve years ago, MSU had five faculty members devoted to floriculture. Now the only dedicated floriculture faculty member is Runkle, who has partial access to a few others. The university also is in the process of merging the horticulture department with crop and soil sciences to create a plant, hort and soil science department, which will bury floriculture’s presence even more.
“I think it is safe to say that MSU’s administration has not made applied floriculture research a priority,” Runkle says. “Faculty are increasingly being evaluated on how much overhead funding they bring into the university. Ornamental production research does not lend itself to these kinds of funded projects.”
If this is happening at Land-Grant universities all over, where is floriculture research alive and well? Fortunately, the current generation of faculty I mentioned above has formed alliances to work across universities and pursue funding together. This is out of necessity and desire based on friendships and shared roots. Because this work is decentralized, we’re not going to see the powerhouses of floriculture we’ve seen in the past.
The big question is what will happen after these young faculty cycle through their careers. We may not see another alliance working together. This may be it. If we want to continue to benefit from unbiased, research-based information, we’re going to have to fund it.