Perspective: Gus De Hertogh On University Funding

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The work Gus De Hertogh did as a floriculture faculty member and researcher at Michigan State University (MSU) and then North Carolina State University (NCSU) revolutionized forcing bulbs as pot crops and had a global impact. In his retirement, he continues to be one of our industry’s biggest advocates as research coordinator for American Floral Endowment (AFE). With a corpus of about $10 million, in 50 years AFE has put the industry’s money to work by funding $14 million in research and more than $400,000 in scholarships and internships. The need for these funds are becoming greater as public funding disappears. The industry must step up to fill the void.

GG: What impacts are state and federal budget cuts having on floriculture programs at land-grant universities?

GD: Without the land-grant system, we couldn’t have the industry we have today. Unfortunately, the system was its own worst enemy. It was too successful. The first was MSU in 1855. At the time, the state legislature said, “We’ve got the University of Michigan. We have a law school, liberal arts college and medical school. But we are an agrarian state and the farmers need help.” The Morrill Act, which created the land-grant system was authorized by Congress and President Lincoln in 1862 to teach agriculture, science and engineering. The wisdom of the time provided research and education for about 150 years, which is amazing.

We provided free information to anyone who requested it. At a point in the near future, faculty will not have the resources to do it for free. In Quebec, growers pay a monthly fee to get information. In Europe, free doesn’t exist and extension has been done away with in England and Holland. What we have is superb, but it made life easy. Just call and get a response! That will come to an abrupt end. Faculty will need to be compensated to keep programs going.

GG: Have we reached the end of an era with the number of key floriculture faculty retiring or about to retire?

GD: My position was dissolved the day I retired. Paul Nelson (at NCSU) is still working but with minimal salary and lots of grant money to keep research going. The position will go when he’s no longer there. I don’t think you’ll see many replacements unless there’s a change in the environment. For anyone who retires, that position will be retired.

There’s no question named professorships, like the Ellison Chair at Texas A&M and Bachman Chair at University of Minnesota (U of M), are more secure. If there’s an ability to fund it, the university won’t do away with it. If you can raise a few million dollars, that does a lot of talking.

GG: How are researchers creating new models to continue their programs?

GD: The research alliances are good. Some of the money for specialty crops that flows through USDA almost requires cooperation between people. The Floriculture Research Alliance led by Paul Fisher at the University of Florida, includes John Erwin at U of M, Erik Runkle at MSU, Jim Faust at Clemson University and John Dole and Brian Whipker at NCSU. The industry is lucky to have a fabulous group of young people who are willing to be flexible enough to figure out how to do it. As much as we’d like to give them a block grant, it’s difficult for the endowment to do that because there wouldn’t be a dollar left for anybody else and it would cut off creative applications.

GG: How is the need for the industry to fund research even greater today?

GD: What will the industry look like 10 years from now? It won’t look the same. There’s no question the need is greater now. If you look specifically, there are not many true endowments for floriculture. AFE is the only one that’s truly an endowment. The Gloeckner Foundation is supported in house. American Nursery & Landscape Foundation has Horticultural Research Institute on the wood ornamental side. The rest are local and state projects and not all state and regional industry groups fund research.

GG: How is investing in scholarships and internships equally important to advancing the industry?

GD: With the decrease in funding, the need for scholarships to support students at every level has never been greater. We’ve seen a lot more people applying, especially with the Internet. Young people are the future of any industry. The endowment also has helped nontenured faculty members gain tenure and stay in the system.

GG: Should growers only care about applied research? How has the industry benefited from basic research?

GD: No, we shouldn’t just support applied research. One reason is 1MCP, which is Ethyl Block. It was discovered by two faculty members at NCSU–Sylvia Blankenship and Ed Sisler. It increases vase life and pot life of any plant sensitive to ethylene. In floriculture, we are the biggest users worldwide. That research was very theoretical in the beginning and look at what it has done for the industry. It’s an untold story that’s just fantastic.

That’s why the endowment funds basic research. You have to be willing to make an effort like that. Another example is mannitol, a sugar alcohol. Its production is gene controlled and can affect botrytis infections. It’s long-term research, but the implications are reduced pesticide usage at all levels.

Another example is Dave Clark’s work to increase fragrance in flowers. The ability to put a scent in any flower is a plus for the consumer. We will take calculated risk, which is important for any industry. Most business people today are only worried about survival. A lot revolves around the ability to make a profit. When you see companies like Nurserymen’s Exchange go under, it sort of shakes your foundation. The industry looks at the short term while the endowment looks at long-term implications.

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