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Published April 02, 2012, 10:26 AM

'For the land and its people'

FARGO, N.D. — In the 32 years that Ken Grafton has been at North Dakota State University in Fargo, a lot of things have changed, but some things have not.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — In the 32 years that Ken Grafton has been at North Dakota State University in Fargo, a lot of things have changed, but some things have not.

“I hope people understand that we really honor the land grant heritage of teaching, research and extension,” Grafton says. “We feel we work on behalf of the citizens of North Dakota. That old adage, ‘for the land and its people,’ in my opinion, is a very important phrase. It’s critical we maintain our resource base and that’s one reason why our Soil Health Initiative in the last session, was so well-received by the Legislature.”

Grafton, who gained vice presidential rank in December, says NDSU will stand with farmers and ranchers as they face tremendous opportunities and challenges.

The world is moving toward a population of 9 billion by 2050 and, worldwide, farmers will need to increase production by 50 percent just to keep even. At the same time, the country is looking for alternatives to the oil-based economy, so there will be opportunities in biofuels and bioproducts. It will take state, federal and industry research to unlock the secrets to prosperity. At the same time, climate change may force different cultural practices, or different crop and livestock mixes.

“Look at what’s happened in the oil patch of North Dakota,” he says. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t feasible to produce oil, but now with fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and horizontal drilling — new technologies — they’re able to do it much more cost-effectively.”

The same kind of change happens in agriculture.

Dynamic institution

Grafton, 59, came to the university in 1980 as a post-doctoral researcher. His career rose steadily: assistant professor in 1981, full tenure in 1987 and professorship in 1994. He was named associate dean of the graduate school in 2000. After a national search, he was named director of the experiment station in 2002 and named dean of the College of Agriculture in 2005, before adding on the vice presidency.

It’s a big role. The annual operating budget for research, education and extension is roughly $100 million, including $60 million for the Agricultural Experiment Station and about $32 million for the extension service. Grafton also oversees capital spending for the college, which includes such projects as a $34 million greenhouse facility, to be completed in the spring of 2013.

The 2011 Legislature funded the high-tech greenhouse complex that will put the university above most others in the country.

Applications for the NDSU Extension Service director position (recently vacated by Duane Hauck, who retired and moved to emeritus status in December) were being accepted through March 30, and a director is expected to be named this spring. The extension director reports to Grafton, but has a separate budget and will continue as a unique “partner and colleague,” with a strong link to counties and constituents.

Since 2008, the agriculture college has increased its undergraduate enrollment an average of 8.5 percent per year, generally across all majors. The college has just fewer than 1,600 students, including 150 graduate students and 1,450 undergraduates. A decade ago, the college had fewer than 1,000 students total

NDSU’s Department of Animal Sciences has the largest number of undergraduate students, followed by crop and weed sciences. “The ag economy is very strong,” Grafton says. “The demand for new employees is exceptionally strong. Many of our students have several job offers before they leave. In some of the areas the salary levels are exceptionally high.”

The rewards in agricultural careers are growing.

A new agricultural engineer with a bachelor’s degree might expect a starting salary of more than $70,000 a year, Grafton says. One plant breeding doctorate graduate got a job for just under $100,000. Ag economics graduates are going into business in ag management and finance. Undergraduates are making their way through the new natural resources management major, an interdisciplinary degree that includes such things as range science, managing natural resources, with ag economics, business and soils components.

During Grafton’s tenure, NDSU is shifting to new venues for teaching, including Barry Hall in downtown Fargo, where business and agribusiness faculty work together. A commodity trading room currently being developed will be a state-of-the-art facility to provide hands-on experience in commodities trading, starting this fall.

Education and opportunities shape careers, as Grafton knows personally.

Ohio to Dakotas

Grafton’s family lived on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland. His parents owned a business that manufactured aluminum parts for airlines. He had one older sister.

“I wanted to be a dairy farmer,” Grafton says. Next to the farm where he lived was a small dairy operation.

Grafton says he was always impressed by Holsteins — “huge animals, and yet so docile, walking in unison, knowing when they would come in” to the milking parlor. He wanted to purchase the farm when it came up for sale, but his father said he needed to go to college first. He started making plans to go to Ohio State University in Columbus.

His father died when Grafton was 17. He graduated high school in 1970 and went to a community college just outside of Cleveland. To make ends meet, and to help out his mother, he worked for a janitorial service. He went on to Ohio State for his bachelor’s degree, and his master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics. He attended the University of Missouri and earned a doctorate in genetics.

“I took plant breeding as an elective at Ohio State and fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I decided to change my plans from dairy farming to being in plant breeding.”

At Ohio State, Grafton studied soft red winter wheat’s tolerance to aluminum toxicity for his master’s degree. “Aluminum can be readily available in low-pH soils, and some wheat varieties are susceptible to that. Others are more resistant, particularly varieties from Brazil.” He also looked at yellow dwarf virus in barley at the University of Missouri.

When Grafton came to North Dakota State University in 1980, H. Roald Lund was the dean of agriculture.

“I was a small grains guy,” he says, but NDSU needed a dry edible bean breeder. “I was just fascinated by the whole idea of genetics, the concept of it.”

After about three years, Grafton developed good familiarity with the crop. It was satisfying to build a breeding program from scratch — collect the equipment needed and gather the germplasm to make appropriate crosses.

Dry bean acreage was 280,000 acres in the state in 1980, and grew to 480,000 acres the next year and eventually nearly 1 million acres. Concurrently, soybean acres have grown from 200,000 acres to 4.2 million acres today. Corn has gone from a half-million acres to 2.5 million acres today, mostly for grain. Canola acres were nothing back then and now are in the 1.8 million acre neighborhood. Peas, lentils and chickpeas have also taken off.

“Our crop commodity base has just flourished,” he says.

Lean times to prosperity

Grafton says there are always ups and downs in funding, whether from the state, commodity groups or competitive grant sources.

“The Legislature in the state has always tried to support NDSU and NDSU agriculture at the level they could,” Grafton says. “We continue to be the land grant university that the state deserves, to try to help solve the problems that affect our stakeholders” whether in cropping or livestock activities. The rule of thumb is that every dollar invested in plant breeding research returns $200 to the state’s economy.

“That’s a pretty good return on investment,” he says. “That’s actually a conservative estimate.”

Grafton notes that when Glenn hard red spring wheat was released in 2005 it returned $350 million in new revenue to the state, while it cost about $1 million to develop, including salaries and other costs, over a 10-year period.

NDSU’s research operations budget typically gets 45 percent of its money from state general funds and just over 50 percent from “special funds,” generated from gifts, grants, contracts, sale of seed and livestock. About 4 percent of the budget comes from the federal Hatch Act, now called the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and formerly the Cooperative States Research Education and Extension Service. That money is allocated to states based on population and the value of the ag commodities grown in the state.

The annual operations budget for the Agricultural Experiment Station is roughly $60 million, including the research and extension centers, which account for about $15 million. The state has seven Research Extension Centers — Dickinson, Williston, Hettinger, Minot, Carrington, Langdon and Streeter — most of which at one time were branch farms. Now all have their own a cadre of scientists and applied research and outreach responsibility.

Appropriate agreements

Agronomists work with chemical companies to identify the best herbicides and pesticides for crops. Animal scientists might work toward knowing the best, appropriate use of pharmaceuticals and supplements for efficient livestock management.

“Partnerships in general are being enhanced in scope,” he says, listing germplasm for corn, soybean and canola, including transgenic organisms. He says it is in farmers’ interest that NDSU interacts with these companies “to make sure that our agriculture remains strong.” Land grant universities now commonly sign agreements with technology companies to “make sure wheat remains a viable commodity,” he says

“We’re constantly exploring new opportunities,” Grafton says. “We are firmly committed to making sure we have appropriate, collaborative true research partnerships with industry, so our crop and livestock industries remain strong.”

In wheat, NDSU has some of the best genetics in the world. The breeding program is one of the universities oldest and most successful. “When we release a new variety, we don’t go on a major marketing campaign.” It is released through county and state crop improvement associations, and the responsibility is to the “betterment of society” and to make farms and ranches more profitable.

“That’s a core belief of the land grant system, and one that I take very seriously,” Grafton says.

In 1996, then-NDSU President Jim Ozbun decided that all intellectual property developed at NDSU would be property of the NDSU Research Foundation. All experimental materials are handled by the Agricultural Experiment Station, but when they are released and sold to the public, the funds are returned to the foundation, and then back into research at about $200,000 per year.

Building futures

In the early 1980s, there was some growth, but in the late 1980s, there was funding retrenchment due to widespread drought.

At that time, Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., who was the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, and former U.S. Rep. Mark Andrews, R-N.D., — later a U.S. senator — were instrumental in providing federal funds and granting funds for a collection of buildings on campus. There was the Industrial Agricultural Communications Center (computer center) and Loftsgard Hall (initially weed science). The U.S. Department of Agriculture has since changed the rules and those building funds are no longer available, in part due to excesses in other states in those programs.

Other additions included the Animal Nutrition Physiology Center at a cost of about $11 million in the early 2000s, and a new greenhouse complex, which when fully completed will cost $34 million, and $3.4 million to build a livestock feeding research facility.

In the 1980s, administrators were forced to eliminate assistantships or stipends for state-supported graduate students. Administrators were forced to deal with 5 and 10 percent contingency cuts. As a bean breeder, Grafton was buffered from this because of strong support from the Northarvest Bean Growers Association.

“One of the big impacts to agriculture in the 1990s was the scab epidemic,” Grafton says, referring to the fusarium head blight impact on wheat and barley crops. Meanwhile, dry beans and other crops were affected by sclerotinia or white mold.

“We ended up with high-disease years in the 1990s — billions of dollars lost, in wheat alone, from scab,” he says. “That did change the way we dealt with agriculture here in North Dakota. That was, I think, the impetus for the creation of the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education.”

In 1997, the Legislature created SBARE as a way for the industry to work with the university in more than an advisory role. “There needed to be some accountability. People were rightly frustrated that we weren’t releasing materials that had any level of scab resistance,” Grafton says. That model has worked out well.

Long-term commitment

NDSU released Alsen wheat in 2000 — the first in the country with any scab resistance. Wheat breeder Richard Frohberg had made the original cross in 1987 or 1988, in the first year of a drought, and before SBARE.

“Plant breeding is a long-term process,” Grafton says. “It can take 10 years to develop a variety by making a cross between two elite germplasm lines, or parental lines. It could take longer if you’re bringing in an exotic germplasm that — in the case of scab — is germplasm from China.” That’s what Frohberg and plant pathologist Robert Stack were dealing with, initially, was exotic germplasm from China that had resistance to scab, and bringing it into North Dakota varieties that would yield reasonably well.

Grafton is working to make sure that kind of development can happen again. On March 24, SBARE finalized budget priorities for capital projects to the State Board of Higher Education for future consideration. Among the top priorities are agronomy labs at Carrington, Hettinger, Langdon and Streeter, and seed cleaning plants for Minot, Carrington, Williston and Langdon.

The strong support that commodity groups have given NDSU scientists and faculty, is “phenomenal,” he says. The 2011 Legislature was finally able to restore a portion of the graduate stipends that were cut years ago. These assistantships go to talented, highly educated individuals who can “move research forward.”

People will get the job done, he says.

“One of the things that set the NDSU college of agriculture apart is that we try to make sure people feel good about being here — that they’re happy and productive,” Grafton says. “If they’re happy and productive, they’ll stay.” NDSU careers often are long. “I would hope that people see this as a family-oriented, very positive working environment. I got that from administrators since I’ve been here and I hope I can continue to convey that.”

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