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Old Skills, New Field Full of Beans Worm Inc. A Good Year Trailblazers


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Foreword What’s For Dinner? R.U.A. Healthy Kid Fat, Food and Inflammation Got Toxins? Mold Over Matter Old Skills, New Field Full of Beans Worm Inc. A Good Year Trailblazers Fish Expertise Blessed Thistle Bundle of Energy

College of Agricultural Sciences Todd A. Winters, Interim Dean Jeffrey R Beaulieu, Interim Chair, Agribusiness Economics Karen L. Jones, Interim Chair, Animal Science, Food and Nutrition


James J. Zaczek, Chair, Forestry Brian P. Klubek, Chair, Plant, Soil, and Agricultural Systems University Communications Mike Ruiz, Director K.C. Jaehnig, Editor, Writer Jay Bruce, Amy Dion, Nate Krummel, Designers Russell Bailey, Steve Buhman, K.C. Jaehnig Photography Send Comments and Letters to: College of Agricultural Sciences AgriSearch Magazine Southern Illinois University Carbondale 1205 Lincoln Drive Mail Code 4416 Carbondale, IL 62901

Printed by the authority of the State of Illinois, 3/10, 1M, 101367. Produced by University Communications, Southern Illinois University Carbondale 618 | 453.2276,


elcome to this issue of AgriSearch, a magazine showcasing the scholarly activities of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. We exist to educate the next-generation job force and serve our stakeholders in the food, fiber and natural resources sector. We fulfill this mission by performing not only “cutting-edge”but applied research and by serving the public through our outreach activities. In this year’s magazine, you will see our mission playing out in settings from Carbondale to Afghanistan, from the classroom to the field. Our theme this issue is food, important to all of us and necessary for life. Much of what we do in the College relates to food. As you’ll read in the articles that follow, our researchers approach this subject in many ways — from improving human health through teaching better eating choices and habits to improving food production systems. It has been said the College goes from “pasture to plate, conception to consumption.” AgriSearch profiles of our innovative exchange with Chicago’s Kendall College and a graduate student’s work on bovine reproduction demonstrate the truth of this adage. On a personal note, I recently completed my first year as associate dean for research in the College and with the retirement of Dean Gary Minish have been named interim dean. Dr. Minish did a great deal to improve the image of the College of Agricultural Sciences in the food and agriculture sector, and enrollment and research productivity in the College are both increasing. We thank him for his contributions; we will miss his leadership. I would also like to thank Susan Graham for all her hard work in making this and previous AgriSearch magazines a reality. I hope you enjoy what you read.

Todd A. Winters, Interim Dean Interim Dean Todd A. Winters inspects tomatoes at Carbondale’s Neighborhood Co-op.

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WHAT’S FOR DINNER Chicago chefs-to-be explore the world of food on the vine, the fin, the hoof


o better understand how what’s at the farm gets to the kitchen, seven future chefs from Chicago’s Kendall School of Culinary Arts spent four days last September touring the College’s farms, aquaculture labs, vegetable plots, vineyards and worm composting center. They also visited a local organic farm, area wineries, beef and lamb barns and a Missouri slaughterhouse. “We hoped our students would gain an understanding of the complex network involved in producing modernday foodstuffs and perhaps gain a greater appreciation for the work required of the

producer/grower,” said Chef-Instructor Dana Cox, a Kendall culinary instructor who accompanied the group. “Because so few of us are involved in the production of our own food, we’ve lost a connection with its origins. This is especially true in an urban environment. We wanted to expose our students to food producers as much as possible so that they don’t view food as something that comes from a box.” Sylvia Smith is an assistant professor of food and nutrition and the detail person behind the group’s visit. She said because Kendall has developed a sustain-

Photos top to bottom: Kendall College Chef-Instructor Heidi Hedeker (left) and Kendall student Jake Norini pay close attention as SIUC Assistant Professor Jesse T. Trushenski talks about fish research at the university. Chef-Instructor Dana Cox and Norini put the finishing touches on an appetizer Norini created for a dinner hosted by the Kendall contingent on its last day at the College. Jaime E. Stratford, a senior in hospitality and tourism at the College, serves Mr. and Mrs. Bill Bass, who donated meat for the last day’s dinner. 4

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( ability curriculum and is involved in a number of green initiatives, she arranged the itinerary to give the chefs-to-be a balance of research and real-world perspectives on agriculture and sustainability. She also wanted to showcase the region’s food. “Local producers can tell the students what it takes to produce fruits and vegetables and what it costs and what happens when the tractor breaks down and the temperatures are cool and the windstorms come,” Smith said. “We want the students to appreciate the value of fruits and vegetables, to understand why there might be a higher cost to it when they buy locally. We want them to understand all the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef so they can make an informed choice. And we want to educate them a little on animal welfare, to appreciate that the meat they’re cooking was once walking around. When you’re a chef, often everything you see is packaged and wrapped.” The students seemed to get it. “I gained a sense of understanding and appreciation for where food comes from and the hard work and preparation that goes into producing even the smallest bean or kernel of corn,” said Sarah E. Roberts. The time and energy needed to run a farm impressed Tiffany Nelson. “You think you can just plant some-

( thing — no one understands what it takes to keep it going,” she said. “It takes so much work to produce something like milk. No wonder it costs $3 a gallon.” David J. Santos particularly enjoyed the vineyards and wineries, though the visits to the organic and lamb farms and the hunt for mushrooms ranked high on his list as well. “Just being able to see people who put their time, energy and care into something they love to do is truly inspiring,” he said. “As a cook, this experience taught me that nothing beats fresh, quality ingredients that come from good people and good places.” Roberts, who cuddled a piglet, milked a cow, petted a lamb, fed some giant fish in the University’s research tanks and marveled at “how worms can do so much with just a pile of dirt” at the SIUC worm composting center, said she enjoyed the “adventure.” “It was all around an incredible experience, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity,” she said. Roberts also enjoyed the region itself. “Having never been to Southern Illinois, I was picturing corn and soybean fields in an endless monotony of flat, undefined farmland, just like you see here up north. However, Southern Illinois couldn’t have been more different, with its rolling hills, glistening meadows and quaint towns. The

scenery alone would have been enough to make me want to come back,” she said. At the end of the trip, the Kendall students cooked up a way to thank their hosts. Their six-course dinner for 61, made from donated local ingredients, featured canapés; grilled prawns over a nicoise salad and a citrus butter sauce; field greens with roasted grapes, cheese, spiced pecans and truffle vinaigrette; cucumber mint granita; sirloin tip roast with sweet corn and okra polenta and a summer vegetable ragout; followed by an apple tarte tatin and buttermilk peach fritters drizzled with lavender honey, all paired with local wines. “I loved doing the dinner, even though it was a little hectic, and I liked that the entire dinner came from products we got there,” Nelson said. Chef-Instructor Dina Altieri said preparing the dinner gave the students a taste of what their futures will hold. “They got some great hands-on experience in the catering realm of our industry,” she said. Nelson, Roberts and Santos all said they would have liked to spend more than four days, in Santos’ words, “learning all this cool stuff.” Tongue in cheek, Roberts had just four words for next year’s group. “Take me with you!” she said.

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If the answer’s ‘No,’ there’s a way to change that


project aimed at heading off Type 2 diabetes in tweens and young teens appears to be on the right track, achieving statistically significant changes in body fat, muscle and snacking behavior. “From a research perspective, we found out what works and what doesn’t with today’s middle school kids,” said Sharon L. Peterson, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of community nutrition.


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Named “R.U.A. Healthy Kid?”, the project began late in 2006 when Peterson, alarmed by reports of rising rates in children of what used to be called adult-onset diabetes, discussed the problem with a few of her students. With funding from the Illinois Soybean Association, the group designed a set of educational activities for kids most likely to develop the disease to get them moving, teach them about nutrition and

help them feel better about themselves. Peterson and her students tried out their new program the following year at Harrisburg Middle School, about an hour away from campus. More than half the school’s students agreed to undergo screening, which revealed that 22 percent of them had three or more of the five risk factors associated with the disease. Slightly less than half of those enrolled in the program.

Because it was so new, Peterson hadn’t expected much in the way of results. But in just three months, the Harrisburg kids decreased their percentages of body fat, increased their muscle mass, ate more vegetables and fruits, boosted their activity levels and increased their self-esteem. “We were thrilled when we found significant changes — enough to make us think there was something going on, to keep pushing, fix some of the problems and do it again,” she said.

Using feedback from the Harrisburg participants — “They’re the experts on middle-school kids!” Peterson said — she and her students made the wording of their screening survey more kid-friendly, developed activities and games with a higher “fun” score and tweaked their snack prep lessons. “There’s no point in teaching kids how to make a mango salsa if there are no mangoes in their grocery stores or if mangoes cost $2 each,” Peterson said. With updates complete, Peterson and her students took the program to grade schools in

Vienna and Highland, screening late in 2008 and running the activities portion of the projects mostly in 2009. Again they found significant changes in body fat, muscle and snacking behavior. (They’re still analyzing the numbers on changes in activity levels and self-esteem.) While Vienna and Highland are both in Southern Illinois, the two communities have only their small size and largely white composition in common. “They’re extremely different in terms of income, education and poverty levels,” Peterson said. “We saw this as a real Continued on page 8

Photo Left: Cobden children play CSI (Culinary Scene Investigation), first guessing the serving size of a snack, then searching the package to track down its actual size. Above: After the children guess how much sugar a snack or drink contains, College students (from left) Kelci J. Williamson, Kristin T. Timken, Jill M. Shunk and Laura E. Hilliard reveal the answer. Photo on page 8: Students (from left) Elizabeth A. Lombardi, Blake D. Brown, Hayley E. Downen, Micki L. Addison and Whitney E. Mann use an audience-participation skit to explain the workings of insulin.

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opportunity to do some comparisons between different socio-economic groups.” Graduate student Lynn M. Cordes took charge of the comparisons and found immediate differences. “At Vienna only 39 percent of those with two or more risk factors attended our program, where in Highland, it was nearly 79 percent,” she said. “We did an after-school type program in Highland, so you could say that they were a captive audience, where in Vienna, it was on a Saturday, so parents had to take them. Later we did run a Saturday program in Highland, and attendance was still high.”

behavior in Highland. “Kids said TV ads made junk foods look cool — it was a very influential factor in their snack choices,” she said. “Ads didn’t have as much influence in Vienna.” Because few studies have looked at Type 2 risk factors in white children — and none focused on gradeschoolers — graduate student Sarah N. Sheffer focused on Vienna, screening 299 youngsters, nearly 80 percent of the student population. She found 40 percent had a family history of the disease, 38 percent were overweight (higher than the national average), with nearly 18 percent of those morbidly

Drawing on what they learned in Vienna and Highland, the next round of “R.U.A. Healthy Kid?” is already underway. “We’ve taken our best stuff from the four Saturday workshops and boiled it down into an hour-and-a-half after-school program,” Peterson said. The team field-tested the new format at Cobden Elementary School in October, is currently testing Carbondale eighth-graders and will present that revamped program to middle schools in Carbondale, Rantoul and Urbana in the fall. Peterson’s group also is working with faculty at the University of Illinois to combine

Highland families ate more meals at home, though childrens’ activities tended to interfere more than they did in Vienna. While Highland kids said they, unlike the Vienna group, had healthy snacks available at home, they went for the junk food anyway, in part because they liked the taste but also because it was easier. “Junk food is in highly accessible form,” Cordes said. “You can have a whole pineapple sitting around, but kids won’t consume it because it’s not cut up and ready to go.” Cordes also found media influenced snacking

obese. In addition, nine percent had high blood pressure. Seventeen of the kids had three or more risk factors, including a 7- and 8-year-old. Noting that the state requires routine diabetes screening for sixth-graders, Sheffer pointed out that state screens would have caught only three of the 17 she found because there is no screening until sixth grade. “In the case of the 7and 8-year-old, a lot could happen before they reach sixth grade,” Sheffer said. “The onset of diabetes may have already occurred.”

SIUC’s diabetes intervention program with UIUC’s Web-based diabetes prevention modules. “My students are writing up the lesson plans with notes on how long everything takes and what supplies are needed so someone else without any background could do this program,” Peterson said. “My dream is to videotape some of our games and skits and have them on the Web site so that any kid in the country could visit, play along and learn.”

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FAT, FOOD AND INFLAMMATION I nflammation, the body’s way of fighting off injury and illness, may in its low-grade guise actually contribute to disease. A number of recent studies suggest that minor but chronic inflammation plays a role in a host of ailments — from Alzheimer’s to kidney disease to stroke. College researchers are taking a closer look at low-grade inflammation in the body’s fat tissues, trying to uncover the complex interplay between it, obesity, the development of diabetes and fiber consumption. “You see high levels of inflammation in the fat tissues of obese people,” said nutrition scientist Jeremy Davis, part of a multi-university research team, headquartered at the College, that studies diet and chronic disease. “Inflammation likely contributes to insulin resistance, which leads to [adult-onset] diabetes. We believe that if you can block that inflammation in the fat tissue, you can prevent the development of diabetes. “The question for us is whether there are things you can do through diet modification that would stop, or at least slow, the inflammation. The modifications would not reverse or prevent obesity but by dealing with the inflammation would improve health.“ The team’s early work with mice on highfat diets showed an increase in inflammation throughout their bodies, including their fat tissue. The researchers also found that stopping that inflammation decreased their subjects’ insulin resistance. Davis and the team have since focused on the effects of red wheat bran and certain soy compounds on inflammation. In work with rats genetically prone to obesity, they found that adding wheat bran to the rats’ diet improved their blood sugar levels, making them more responsive to insulin. The diet also low-

ered their cholesterol levels and reduced their liver weights, meaning they were less likely to develop “fatty liver” disease, which can lead to that organ’s failure. The rats did, however, gain weight on the diet, but even that fact had an upside. “Despite the greater fat mass, they still had a better distribution of fat,” Davis said. “If the fat stays in the tissues and out of the liver and muscle, that can improve the health of an obese individual.”

Researchers look for the links that could stave off diabetes As often happens in science, answers lead to new questions. In this case, the team hopes to discover what exactly causes the effects. “The bran has fiber, but it also has other compounds, just like soy [the disease- and obesity-fighting properties of which the team is also studying],” Davis said. “It could be one, the other, or some combination.” The team also is trying to determine why the fat of the rats in the study distributed itself as it did, an effect they’ve also found in obese rats on a soy-based diet. “It may be there are compounds that affect how fat cells expand,” Davis said. “If you expand the number

of cells where fat can be stored, it may be that more sensitive organs will be protected.” Other ongoing soy studies are testing the anti-inflammatory effect of these compounds on muscle cells. Food-based treatments for obesity-related inflammation and the diseases that accompany it — the ultimate goal — could lower or even eliminate the need for drugs, which, in addition to costing money, often cause unpleasant side effects. Wheat bran — safe, readily available, relatively cheap and fairly palatable — makes an ideal candidate for such use. “I’d like to see researchers and companies work together to develop products that are healthier and make sure they get to consumers at a young age — maybe even in the school lunch programs — so they become widely acceptable,” said Davis, who also is a registered dietitian. “If we have foods that consumers not only can afford but can enjoy, then over the long term we’ll see a decrease in the risk of developing diseases associated with obesity. Some of us have good genetics [for lifetime health], but most of us just aren’t that lucky.”

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Helpful bacteria can tell you if the milk’s safe to drink


Southern Illinois University Carbondale


mer AbuGhazaleh, a College researcher, and Salam Ibrahim, a food microbiologist from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, have shown that the combination of certain bacteria and a common purple dye can reveal the presence of toxins in milk in just a few hours. “To date, detecting the presence of toxins or pesticides has only been possible by sending samples to a laboratory and waiting a few days for the results,” AbuGhazaleh said. “An important step towards improving the safety of our dairy supply would be the development of an effective, simple and rapid test that would allow farmers or processors to detect the presence of foreign substances.” AbuGhazaleh and Ibrahim first began thinking about developing a way to detect tainted milk quickly in 2007, after a series of food recalls shook the country. “We were surprised at how much damage that caused, and people were so frightened,” AbuGhazaleh remembered. The pair also harked back to fears, generated after 9/11, of mass poisonings caused by bioterrorists. “It seemed like it wouldn’t be hard to contaminate the food supply — intentionally or unintentionally — especially with the poor

Amer AbuGhazaleh eyes a test tube filled with growing media and lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria respond to toxins in milk by producing little or no lactic acid, a trait AbuGhazaleh uses to determine whether milk has been contaminated.

level of security on the majority of farms today,” AbuGhazaleh said. They started with milk in part because AbuGhazaleh specializes in dairy cattle. But they also knew the milk supply was particularly vulnerable. “A single load of contaminated milk from one dairy could spread that contamination quickly across a wide area as it mixed with milk from other dairies at the processing plant,” AbuGhazaleh noted. After tossing around some ideas for a simple detection system, the scientists decided to focus on the bacteria that ferment lactose (milk’s sugars), producing lactic acid as they go. “For one thing, these bacteria already exist in milk, so if you add some, you’re not doing anything strange,” AbuGhazaleh said. “Second, they produce a change over time (the lactic acid) that we could monitor. If we didn’t see the change, we would know something was wrong.” They began in 2008 with a few bacterial strains they already had and cyanide, also readily available. Experiments showed not only that the toxin could slow or stop lactic acid production but that this effect increased with the toxic load. Further, the effect appeared in less than four hours.

They then added purple dye to milk samples containing both toxins and bacteria and to samples containing only bacteria. After eight hours, dye in the non-toxic milk turned yellow, indicating the presence of increased lactic acid, while dye in the toxin-laden milk retained its original purple. “This kind of color test could be performed by farmers themselves,” AbuGhazaleh said. “They could add the bacteria and the dye to a sample, leave it alone for a little while and then come back to see if there is any change in the color. If there isn’t, there are problems with the milk. The test won’t tell us what sort of toxin is in the milk; it only tells us there is something wrong. It’s like an alarm.” Such an alarm could save society billions of dollars. In 2005, Stanford University researcher Lawrence M. Wein and then-graduate student Yifan Liu developed a mathematical model predicting what would happen if terrorists slipped four grams of botulinum toxin — roughly the weight of a sugar cube — into a single dairy holding tank, tanker truck or processing silo in California. Their model showed that 400,000 people would sicken, some of whom would die. The

cost of treating the victims, the researchers said, would run to “tens of billions of dollars” — and that does not include the further costs of tracing, recalling and discarding milk nor the effect of reduced milk purchases by frightened consumers. With funding from the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research, AbuGhazaleh and Ibrahim now are expanding their study to include a wider range of bacteria and toxins. “We want to see if there are bacteria that are more sensitive to toxins, which would allow us to see the effect in less time,” AbuGhazaleh said. “We also want to find that ‘universal’ bacteria that would be sensitive to a wide range of toxins.” AbuGhazaleh presented the preliminary results in 2008 at the annual meeting of the American Dairy Sciences Association in Indianapolis. “There was a lot of interest, particularly in potential commercial applications,” he said. “That’s the main thrust of this project, but long term, we think the concept — using naturally occurring microbes to detect contamination — might extend to other food industries.”

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M LD O v e r

m at t e r

Researcher searches for keys to a fungal toxin’s power


Southern Illinois University Carbondale


hile the furor over pet food that poisoned dozens of dogs a few years back has died down, the fungal toxin that did the deed is still very much alive. “Recent outbreaks in West Africa have resulted in human death,” said Ahmad M. Fakhoury, a plant pathologist in plant, soil and agricultural systems who studies disease-producing fungi. Fakhoury focuses on aflatoxin — the culprit in both the human and pet poisonings. Produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus, it contaminates such food crops as corn, peanuts and pecans. In large doses, it can lead to a host of serious, even fatal, diseases. “Aflatoxin is believed to be one of the most potent naturally occurring carcinogens,” Fakhoury said. In addition to causing liver cancer, aflatoxin can interfere with the immune response and short-circuit growth in both people and animals. In developing nations, which lack the resources to properly store and monitor their food, millions of people risk chronic exposure to the toxin, making it a significant food safety problem. In this country, however, government regulations keep levels low in food and feed, though those same regulations do have an economic effect on farmers. “You can have a problem in a small area of a field — just a few plants — but you’ll see a big impact,” Fakhoury said. “Even a few ears of corn can contain enough toxin so that when you harvest the plant and everything is mixed together, the whole product will be laced with it and may need to be discarded.” Fakhoury’s research focuses on the fungus’ inner workings, particularly as they relate to corn. He works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New Orleans-based Southern Regional Research Center, which has a national food safety program focusing largely on aflatoxin. “We try to understand how the toxin is produced, what genes are involved and what

triggers the production,” he said. “We are looking at both tolerant and susceptible lines of corn trying to identify which proteins are [active]. We then analyze these proteins to see what is known about them. We compare them to see how they differ and, in the tolerant lines, to look for some common ground that might explain why the plant is tolerant. We also test them to see if they’re doing something to the fungus.” Once the researchers pinpoint which proteins seem to play a role in tolerance, they can include them when developing new corn lines.

Ochratoxin, a second focus for Fakhoury, isn’t as well known as its “cousin” aflatoxin, but it, too, has carcinogenic qualities. Found in foods such as grains and coffee beans, ochratoxin also contaminates grapes, a particular concern in Southern Illinois with its burgeoning vineyards. “Although ochratoxin levels are not, as far as I know, heavily regulated in the United States, they are regulated in Europe,” Fakhoury said. “As our wine industry develops,

we will probably begin exporting [so this could become more of an issue]. While researchers still have a lot to learn about the genes involved in ochratoxin production, an inherent peculiarity in the toxin itself may help them do so. “The interesting thing about this toxin is that it is produced by several species [of a particular fungus] belonging to different genera [groups that contain similar species] so you can study many different organisms instead of just one,” Fakhoury said. “You can see how the ability to produce the toxin evolved [which should make it easier to counteract].” In addition to tracking down that toxin’s genetic origins, Fakhoury is visiting a small number of vineyards in southern Illinois and Missouri, looking for evidence of toxinproducing fungi. What he finds may indicate a need to look at vineyard culture and management practices. He also is testing fungi he finds for toxin production. Not only will these screens give him a “map” of possible trouble sites, they may also reveal the presence of certain “isolates,” or fungal strains that do not produce the toxin. “These could be used as bio-control agents by out-competing the toxin-producing strains if they become a problem,” Fakhoury said.

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A transplanted tradition takes root in Afghanistan


gnore the desert hills looming behind the vegetable plots, and it could be just another field day of the sort the College of Agricultural Sciences regularly hosts for regional farmers. Experts give talks, growers ask questions, and the usual big meal caps off the event. But those dry hills, the headscarves worn by the women and the need for a translator all signal that you aren’t in Illinois any more. This is Afghanistan. The field day — held in August 2009 with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development through a project called Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer (AWATT) — aims to


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transfuse American knowledge into a farm culture still relying heavily on animal- and manpower to raise crops in a land where rain seldom falls. “There are a lot of problems out there, but we focused on the ones we could help them solve quickly through water management,” says S. Alan Walters, the College’s vegetable expert and an AWATT veteran. “Since water is so scarce and so valuable, our partners from Colorado State University emphasized developing systems to use it more efficiently, mainly through drip irrigation. My purpose was to show how better water management results in better

disease management. Water management plays a huge role in the frequency of certain vegetable diseases.” While Afghans grow a wide range of vegetables, including okra (their hands-down favorite), Walters focused on tomatoes and chili peppers. Both crops sell well, in country and abroad, and both suffer severe yield loss caused by Afghan farming practices, especially when it comes to water use. Phytophthora blight, a fungal disease that strikes not just peppers and tomatoes but cukes and eggplants, too, proves particularly harmful for Afghan growers because of their irrigation methods. They either flood the entire field so

crops stand in water for days on end, or they flood the spaces between their furrows. “Under flood irrigation, some of the fields have a 70 percent loss from Phytophthora blight; with furrow irrigation, it’s 20 percent.” Walters says. “Because the plant is not sitting in water with furrow irrigation, you don’t have the loss you see with flooding, but with drip irrigation, that loss would be less than 5 percent.” Blossom end rot also affects both crops, but here the management problem lies in timing. The plants don’t get the water they need to move the soil’s scanty calcium into the developing

fruit. Better water management would improve things some, but — particularly for tomatoes — what farmers really need is a combination of proper watering and calcium fertilizer. American farmers apply calcium-based fertilizers to their fields at the start of the growing season, following up with a calciumbased leaf spray to knock out the rot before it gets started. But fertilizer costs money, a commodity in short supply on Afghanistan’s hardscrabble farms.

In a field on the outskirts of Kabul (above), Alan Walters talks peppers wih this Afghan farmer. Over-irrigating fields like the one below causes heavy crop losses from Phytophthora blight.

“If we can help them understand that they can improve their crop just by going out and applying a little bit of calcium to their soil and using better water practices, they will easily make up the cost of that little bit of extra input they have with the extra yield,” Walters says. Walters took part in two field days on his last trip, both on the outskirts of Kabul. He will be heading back to Afghanistan this summer for several planned field days in three Afghan provinces.

“We need to evaluate several older openpollinated sweet corn varieties — this is a new crop for them,” Walters said. He will compare the strengths and weaknesses of the different varieties as well as the effects of different irrigation methods. “This kind of education is our overriding purpose there, but it takes time,” he says. “You have to do the research and the on-farm demonstrations to get them to think about and understand how everything works together in a system — like how better water management relates to less problems with disease. You can’t do that if you go over just once.” The College’s ties with Afghanistan, which began in 2005, continue this year. Walters will return, as will foresters John W. Groninger and Charles M. Ruffner as well as economist Phillip R. Eberle. “We have seen a lot of improvements during this project and plan to continue for as long as we receive USAID funding,” said Interim Dean Todd A. Winters. Current funding runs through March 2011. College of Agricultural Sciences


FULLof BEANS A “new generation” breeder takes the College’s soybean program in new directions

In a College greenhouse, soybean breeder Stella Kantartzi checks the progress of a new line she hopes will be resistant to pests.


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rowing demand for soybeans that have not been altered genetically has led to a fork in the road for the College’s bean-breeding program. “The improvement of non-genetically modified soybean varieties has become one of our major projects,” says Stella K. Kantartzi, who replaced longtime breeder Michael E. Schmidt after his retirement in 2008. “If we can ensure that there’s pretty much the same yield and quality in non-GM soybeans, it will help with exports, and in the future, it may also help our farmers. Rising costs of GM seed and the herbicide it needs along with the low price the farmers get for their soybeans are cutting into their profits. Improvements in conventional varieties will give farmers a choice.” As always, yield traits take top priority in breeding new varieties. “That’s where the profit is for the farmer,” Kantartzi says. “We also care about composition — the protein and the oil content — because of its importance to diet. And we want new varieties to be resistant to diseases.” Kantartzi, one of what she describes as “the new generation” of breeders, kept many elements of the traditional program she inherited from Schmidt, including some ongoing projects that will yield new varieties not too far in the future. “In addition, I kept the multi-location field research system [the program has more than 22,000 individual plots in eight Southern Illinois locations], but I am using new field designs [the arrangement of plants in the field] so I can apply computer-based selection,” she says. “I also organized a molecular lab; the breeding program didn’t have one of these before.” Kantartzi aims to create a breeding system that combines the traditional approach — selecting plants out in the field based on observable characteristics — with lab-based techniques and computer technology. This allows her to search the DNA of plants chosen in the field for sequence fragments, or “markers,” that point the way to genes associated with particular desirable traits. Knowing which of the plants with the right field “look” also has good genes reduces the trial and error associated with conventional breeding. “We think this will lead to more new varieties in less time,” Kantartzi says. “Traditionally, it’s taken seven to 10 years; we believe that with the right tools and methods we can get that down to four or five.” In addition, molecular work alerts the breeder to the presence of genes that don’t readily identify themselves in the field. “Some traits are difficult to measure because they

are influenced by the environment,” Kantartzi says. “Because each environment is different, it’s important to create varieties specific to the location — that results in better, more predictable yields. Markers will help us add valuable new traits to Southern Illinois soybeans.” Markers also assist Kantartzi in her quest to breed varieties with resistance to soybean Sudden Death Syndrome and Frogeye Leaf Spot, the former a longstanding disease problem, the latter an emerging threat. “The presence or absence of a marker can indicate resistance or susceptibility to disease,” Kantartzi says. “If we identify the right ones, we won’t have to inoculate plants with a pathogen and screen their reaction.” As a breeder, Kantartzi feels some urgency about getting new varieties to market. “The world population is growing, so we must have higher yields and better quality crops to meet the needs in food and feed,” she says. “Breeders need to make as much progress in production efficiency in the next 30 years as we have made in the previous 12,000.” The university currently is negotiating with a seed company to release one new variety that boasts yields of 60 bushels per acre and a good resistance package. Expect it in the next year or so, Kantartzi says. An additional 10 promising lines — high-yielding, resistant varieties with high percentages of protein and oil — are also in the pipeline. She hopes they will be available within the next five years. By using today’s technology to build better beans, Kantartzi is making sure that Illinois farmers will have a seat at tomorrow’s global table.

College of Agricultural Sciences


Wrigglers make


fter finding they could grow tomatoes in soil enriched with compost made by worms, College researchers are looking at just how much it takes to get the best yields. Funding for the project comes from the state’s Conservation 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program, which encourages farm practices that protect and enhance soil, water and air. The growing ranks of small farm and specialty crop growers don’t always have access to the cow or horse manure that gives traditional compost its punch. In addition, cows have fairly large “carbon footprints,” a concern for many who emphasize sustainable agriculture. Enter the worms.

“It takes four pounds of raw material to make a pound of compost, and worms can break down a pound of food waste in 24 hours,” said Bryan D. Shupe, a 23-year-old graduate student, who is writing his master’s thesis in plant and soil science based on this project. “Plus, they reproduce prolifically because they’re hermaphrodites [they have both male and female sex organs]. Under optimal conditions, each worm will produce an egg sac with three to five worms each week. A sac takes three weeks to hatch, and those worms take three weeks to mature.”

With comp ost made b y worms, to Alan Walte mato plants rs (left) and thrive witho graduate st ut synthetic udent Brya fertilizer, sa n D. Shupe y .


Southern Illinois University Carbondale

In an earlier study, Shupe and Associate Professor S. Alan Walters found that vermicompost performed pretty much like that made with animal manure. But unlike traditional compost, which relies on heat to break down landscape and food wastes, vermicompost temperatures seldom exceed 72 degrees, a plus for both the worms and the smaller critters that call compost home. “Worm casts [the technical term for their manure] provide a good place to live for microorganisms that produce growth-promoting substances for the plants,” Shupe said. In looking for a workable alternative to synthetic fertilizer, Walters and Shupe chose to pair vermicompost with tomatoes

good fertilizer

not just because so many commercial growers plant them but because they’re “heavy feeders.” “We wanted to see if the soil would provide enough nutrients through the growing season,” Walters said. “Tomatoes generally require split applications of synthetic fertilizers, once before planting and again about six weeks later, because those fertilizers release their nutrients all at once. With vermicompost, the nutrients — especially nitrogen — are released slowly throughout the season, so growers would save both on labor and input costs. Synthetic fertilizer isn’t cheap any more.” In 2008, the pair showed that vermicompost could substitute for fertilizer in growing tomatoes. Last year, they found that applying

15 to 16 tons of vermicompost per acre (about 125 pounds per 100-foot row) produced the best yields, though they got a growth increase from as little as 7 tons per acre (about 60 pounds per hundred feet of row). “Above that 15- to 16-ton level, you start to get a lot of extra foliar growth and increased production of tomatoes that have deformities of some sort,” Walters said.

Because most specialty crops have different nutrient needs, Walters next plans to conduct additional rate studies for peppers, onions, garlic and green beans. In addition, he will be looking at how vermicompost might influence antioxidant levels in these vegetables.

by post made holds com e p u h S r, sting Cente ermicompo V ’s C rounds. IU S In nd coffee g a e st a w d foo worms fed

College of Agricultural Sciences


A GOOD YEAR Grape work proves fruitful as projects mature


ore than a decade has passed since the College branched out into projects aimed at assisting the state’s new grape and wine producers. That work continues at College vineyards and includes variety evaluations, ground cover management research and studies of viruses and nematodes that prey upon the crop. Outreach efforts include demonstrations of training systems and canopy management practices to help boost grower revenues. “We have developed significant new areas of inquiry to define and solve problems that we see developing throughout the state while carrying on with and evolving some of the older projects,” said fruit specialist Bradley H. Taylor. Variety evaluations play a key role in Taylor’s research as he looks for those that can stand up to harsh Midwestern winters while producing high-quality fruit year after year. “This is critical for an industry where it takes five to seven years to get appreciable revenue, especially when you’re investing $10,000 per acre, not including the cost of the land,” Taylor noted. “Oftentimes, you will have to order a specific variety several years in advance of planting. It’s almost a decade from the time you make your decision to the time you have the opportunity for net revenues, so you want to know you will have 15 to 20 years of top-quality, reliable production from the varieties you select.” Taylor is assessing the vigor, adaptability, yields and fruit quality of 35 different varieties, including French hybrid and European grapes. It’s a balancing act. The French hybrid grapes show good winter hardiness, but the quality is not always quite what he’d like to see. The European varieties do well on quality indicators but suffer more from sub-freezing temperatures (those from 5 degrees to 8 below zero), though that might present less of a problem for growers in Southern Illinois, where winters tend toward mildness. Taylor also is looking at groundcovers that could suppress perennial and annual weeds beneath the vines, thus cutting money spent on


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herbicides and time spent mowing. But groundcovers could possibly do even more in terms of keeping the vines themselves in check. Surprisingly, vines that grow too well spell trouble for the grapes. By shading the fruit zone, they increase the chances that fungi and other diseases will thrive. And without enough sunlight, the grapes don’t produce the pigments and aromatic compounds that flavor the fruit. It’s also harder to manage the acidity levels of shaded grapes during the winemaking process, which not only can dull the flavors but actually impart an unpleasant taste to the finished wine. “In Illinois, which is noted for ground that can yield 150 to 250 bushels of corn per acre, it’s easy to get shoots that grow 6 to 8 feet in a single season rather than the 3 to 4 feet that’s ideal,” Taylor said. “One shoot on my vines grew 23 feet, though that’s not the average. We’ve found the right groundcover can reduce excessive vigor by 20 to 25 percent. Our experiments have also shown that dividing the canopy can also help manage excessive vine vigor while improving wine flavor and structure.” Perhaps most critical for long-term production is the work Taylor is doing to minimize damage to grapevines from viruses and nematodes (small, root-sucking pests afflicting a variety of crops, most notably soybeans in this region). “Most viruses and nematodes don’t start expressing themselves for four to seven years after planting, which could be devastating to cash flow,” Taylor said. “You just get to the point where you have your first good crop, and then your vines start to decline.” Taylor has continued work done by Imed Dami, former College viticulturist, particularly as it related to research and service activities. “In 2008 we had more than 530 hours of contact with grape growers through presentations across the state,” Taylor reported. Presentations and demonstrations covered such diverse topics as pruning methods, coping with freeze damage and production marketing. The College plans to continue its involvement with the state’s growers, ensuring that that the glass is not just half full, but overflowing.

Above, Bradley H. Taylor inspects grapes grown in research fields prior to harvesting them.

College of Agricultural Sciences






TRAILBLAZERS An agricultural economist takes a second look at conventional wisdom on biofuel


he idea that fuels made from crop waste or plants not used for food benefit the environment drives current energy policy. But that may not always prove true. “If, for example, prices for biomass feedstocks increase, that could draw more environmentally fragile land into production and increase tillage intensity and nitrogen fertilizer use,” said economist Sylvia Secchi. “One of the things our study looks at is the impact of biomass feedstocks on land productivity and the environment at a very fine scale, something few other studies have done.” Secchi works with a team that includes environmental scientists and a statistician engaged in a detailed look at the links between agriculture, energy and the environment. A three-year, $360,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service underwrites the project. In addition to determining the environmental consequences of biofuel production, the researchers also are examining the economic implications, all with an eye toward developing policy recommendations for this potential new financial sector. While biofuels can be made from any number of plant materials, the team is focusing on ethanol manufactured from corn stover — the leaves, stalks, husks and cobs left behind after harvest. Although a formal stover market for biofuel does not yet exist, the fact that farmers have years of experience growing corn and could boost their per-acre profit by selling both grain and gleanings makes the emergence of such a market a possibility. But if farmers grow more corn, that increased production would affect everything 22

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from the market price to the cost of oil and gas. “Every movement you make in crop production has ramifications on a variety of fronts, so to get a better understanding of the whole, you need to link crop production models with energy and commodity market models,” Secchi said. “That’s part of what we’re doing,” Some members of the team are concentrating on the big picture: the interaction between world-scale energy and commodity markets and the resulting effects on the development of a stover market. Secchi and her research partner Luba Kurkalova, a North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University colleague formerly at the College, are looking at the fine details. What happens if farmers grow more corn? Will they work existing acres more intensively or begin planting on land previously left fallow? Will greater production lead to less carbon storage in the soil? More erosion and chemical run-off? What are the trade-offs between using stover for

biofuel and using it to improve and protect the soil and reduce pollution from farm chemicals? The pair already has found that higher stover prices do lead farmers to plant their less productive fields (requiring more fertilizer) and those fields that tend to erode. Kurkalova reports that even productive fields are losing carbon content as cropping increases, while Secchi has detected large increases in run-off in Midwestern states where corn production has risen as well as significant environmental impact on acreage that farmers brought back into production after letting it sit idle for some years. “We’re trying to get a better handle on this because it could be quite important not just from an environmental standpoint but from a policy standpoint, too,” Secchi said. “When you’re making policy, you try to avoid having unintended consequences.” The project relies heavily on computerized simulation models to predict outcomes of different scenarios involving commodities, energy and the environment. While economists and other scientists often use such models in their research, models aren’t perfect predictors. In this case, the data used in constructing them has gaps because biofuels have not been available for very long, their markets are still developing, commodity and energy prices are volatile, technology is changing rapidly and government policy is in flux. “We’re working with things that don’t exist in the real landscape,” Secchi said. “In addition, each model has a certain amount of inherent uncertainty. As you add models, you add uncertainty. But if you want to have good policy, you have to have good estimates of what’s involved. That’s what we’re trying to do.”


New hire brings knowledge of genetics and reproduction to the table

In SIUC’s wet lab, physiologist Brian C. Small shows shovelnose sturgeon caught in the Mississippi River for his research project.


partnership with the university’s Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center has added a prominent fish physiologist to the faculty. Brian C. Small, whose research interests include fish growth, metabolism and reproduction as well as the improvement of aquaculture production techniques, will help the College play a larger role in aiding farmers trying meet the world’s aquaculture needs, said Interim Dean Todd A. Winters. “Expansion of aquaculture also will increase the demand for soybean feed products, giving Illinois farmers more market opportunities. We have already secured a grant from the Illinois Soybean Association to support Dr. Small’s initial caviar research.” Small comes to the College from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mid-south Agricultural Research Service, headquartered in Stoneville, Miss. During his decade there, Small worked in a research unit focused on catfish genetics. “I spent a lot of time identifying the physiological mechanisms that regulate growth and reproduction and identifying specific genes

that allow certain fish to grow faster on less feed while producing more offspring,” Small said. Small also conducted studies on hatchery management. “I have done a lot of work on increasing the percentage of eggs that hatch, and as a result of that research we have been able to increase hatch rates at least 20 percent on average,” he said. Small is continuing his work with catfish, looking at physiological pathways that regulate food intake and may influence the fishes’ use of carbohydrates. Small also is embarking on an entirely new research venture aimed at relieving the pressure on dwindling sturgeon populations. Growing demand for sturgeon caviar — the salted eggs of various species — has reduced the numbers of these large fish worldwide, both because an egg eaten is an egg that won’t become a fish and because fishermen kill the females to get at the eggs. In addition, those fish left in the wild just aren’t reproducing as they once did. Small will work on developing techniques to raise sturgeon in captivity, both to boost species numbers and to meet the demand for caviar. His fish of choice for this project is the shovelnose sturgeon, a small, freshwater sturgeon with both valuable roe and tasty flesh, commonly found in both Missouri and Mississippi river systems. While this fish is not yet listed as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in September 2009 protecting it in habitats that overlap those of the threatened pallid sturgeon; that area includes the Mississippi River. Improved reproduction will play a key role in producing both more fish and more eggs. To try to cut the time shovelnose sturgeon need to become sexually mature, Small will experiment with adjustments to their diet. “Maturation is often related to size, so we want a diet that will get them there quickly,” Small said. “Once we determine the diet required for growth, we will then determine the optimum diet for roe production, especially in terms of quality measures such as texture, consistency and taste.” The first studies have already begun with small sturgeon caught in the Mississippi, and researchers are trawling for larger fish to use in broodstock work, though Small aims ultimately to produce in captivity all fish used in his research.

College of Agricultural Sciences



An old herbal remedy may one day help cows have more calves

Graduate student Jamie Douglas takes the day’s blood sample from one of 27 cows she’s studying at the College’s Beef Evaluation Center.


hen cows graze on grass, they often ingest a toxin-producing fungus along with it. The toxin interferes with the normal development of the cows’ oocytes, or immature “eggs,” resulting in failures to conceive or later miscarriages. Jamie M. Douglas, a graduate student in animal science, has found the oocytes will develop normally, even when exposed to that toxin, if treated with an extract of a plant called blessed thistle — at least in the lab. “Now we’re trying to see if it has the same effect in an actual cow,” said Douglas, who began research on the toxin while still an undergraduate with an internal grant from the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research. “Just because it works in a dish doesn’t mean it works in a body.” The fungus that causes the trouble lives in the stems and blades of tall fescue, a common pasture grass. The toxic byproducts it produces do good things for fescue, helping the grass tolerate heat, drought and bugs. They’re not so friendly to grazing animals. “As the toxins build up, the animals’ blood vessels constrict, they run a fever, and their circulation slows — in some cases, so much that they slough off their hooves, their ears and their tails (because blood doesn’t reach their extremities),” Douglas said. “In terms of reproduction, their hormones get out of whack, so they cycle more irregularly, and you see lower conception rates, smaller birth weights and lactation problems.” A drug called Equitox can combat the toxin’s effects in horses, but that solution won’t work for cattle. “The Food and Drug Administration


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has strict regulations about feeding medications to animals used for meat, and that drug isn’t approved for cows,” Douglas said. While fescue grasses that do not contain the fungus exist, these grasses have more trouble with bugs and disease than the pasture variety. In addition, cattle find them less tasty and so eat less. They’re also more expensive. “Farmers need a crop they can afford and one that will maintain itself, and that’s tall fescue,” Douglas said. Working with college animal scientist Karen L. Jones, who has spent a decade searching for a way to deal with fescue toxicosis, Douglas started small. Because the toxins keep oocytes from developing into eggs, she first focused on recreating that disruption in a Petri dish. Success there led to a search for a way to reverse the effect, and that search led her to blessed thistle. “Blessed thistle extract has been used in humans to reduce fever, increase circulation, regulate hormones and stimulate milk production — the same problems we’re having with the cows — so we wondered if it would have the same effect on them,” Douglas said. “And because it’s a plant instead of a medication, the FDA regulations don’t apply.” In the lab, Douglas set up four sets of oocyte-laden dishes. She left one set alone while dosing another with blessed thistle. The other two sets got the toxin, but only one of them received a thistle treatment. Egg development proceeded normally in the first two sets. It fell significantly in the toxin-laced dishes without the thistle extract, but in those treated with both toxins and blessed thistle, egg development matched the level attained by the oocytes in the dishes she’d left alone. Encouraged by these results, Douglas began running a study in January involving 27 cows from the College’s Beef Center. She’s feeding one group a normal diet, one group a diet that includes the toxin and one group a diet containing both the toxin and the blessed thistle extract. She’s hoping to find that oocytes in cows treated with blessed thistle match the development rate of those in cows eating the normal diet. “Once the rumen (part of the cow’s digestive system) gets involved, this may not work at all,” Douglas said. “We need to assess the efficacy of blessed thistle after it’s been degraded in the rumen.” Douglas and Jones presented the initial work with blessed thistle extract at a symposium on fescue toxicosis in October 2008. Researchers there showed some interest, Douglas said, but because so many scientists have searched so long for a cure, the idea that an old-fashioned herb could handle the job met with some giggles. “That’s OK,” Douglas said. “When it works, they won’t be laughing then.”

Bundle of Energy Undergraduate researcher seeks to document government’s role in renewable energy


he’s been on the hunt for just a few months, but Kristen L. Woods, a 21-year-old senior in agribusiness economics, has already figured one thing out: It’s hard to follow a federal money trail. “They don’t just put it out there,” Woods said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I know that the information is out there somewhere. I try to follow the sources in papers I’ve read to dig deeper and find more details. I’m just amazed at how much money has been spent.” Woods, whose family runs a small farm in Newton, works as an undergraduate research assistant for agricultural economist Sylvia Secchi, helping gather information on the role of government policy in promoting renewable energy production over the last 35 years. “The goal is to publish a scholarly journal article on public sector initiatives aimed at fostering production of a variety of renewable energy sources — biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal,” Secchi said. “To date, the only published research in this area focuses on one specific resource at a time. The overall perspective is missing. Understanding the lessons from past energy policy will help improve the effectiveness of future energy policy.” Woods’ part of the project focuses on federal and state efforts to assist alternative energy producers — from research and development grants to taxes, subsidies, loans and legislation — and on how actual energy production has changed in response. Using

online search tools, Woods is sifting through both published and unpublished material, focusing particularly on documents produced by governmental agencies. After completing that research, she will work with Secchi to assemble what she has learned into databases and a chronology. Secchi chose Woods, who also serves as president of the Agriculture Student Advisory Council and as a College Agbassador, because of her reputation within the College and because of Woods’ stellar grade-point average. She has not been disappointed. “She is the hardest-working, go-getter overachiever I ever saw,” Secchi said. “She is not just doing what I ask, she is working hard to understand the issues.” Woods, who drives a 2000 Ford Taurus that runs on a mix of ethanol and gas, said she applied for the assistantship because she perceives renewable energy as a “hot topic.” “I think this knowledge will be relevant even if I don’t use it in a job per se,” Woods said. Woods meets weekly with Secchi to get specific assignments and spends about eight hours each week on the work. Since starting in September, Woods said she’d seen a “big jump” in both her ability to translate the jargon she encounters and in her organizational skills. But by far the biggest benefit has come from the knowledge she’s soaked up from Secchi as they discuss what she’s found. “You get that one-on-one time with your professor, and you learn a lot about a specific topic,” she said. “It’s a good way to increase your educational experience because if all you do is go to class, you don’t get the depth you do when you do your own research.”

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Oval M. Myers Jr. 1933-2010 Teacher, mentor, soybean breeder, international aid worker and world traveler Oval Myers died Jan. 14, just a few months after his last trip to Afghanistan, where he played a key role in the College’s AWATT program (see page 14). “Oval thought the work he did with development agencies was important because the agriculture programs and their students were the best hope for the future of those countries,” said Gilbert. H. Kroening, former director of the College’s international agriculture program. “He was the eternal optimist. He could always see potential, even under the worst conditions you could

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imagine. After he went to Afghanistan for the first time, I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘Well, they don’t have any money, any facilities or any equipment, but there’s hope.’ And that to me epitomizes him.” While Myers’ efforts since his 1999 “retirement” focused on helping farmers in other countries, he made important contributions to Illinois agriculture over his 31 years with the College. “In the mid-1970s, soybean cyst nematode was just coming into Southern Illinois and spreading northward,” recalled Brian P. Klubek, head of the Department of Plant, Soil and Agricultural Systems. “There was a huge concern about finding ways to control it. He built our early breeding program in response, without which SCN losses could easily have reached 70 to 80 percent.” When soybean sudden death syndrome hit the area, Myers was one of the first to work on developing varieties that had resistance to that disease. “His work breeding SCN- and SDS-resistant varieties and the good will and reputation that the College derived from that work are the cornerstones of his legacy, “ Kroening said.

AgriSearch - Food 2010  

AgriSearch, a magazine showcasing the scholarly activitiesof the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale...

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