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Published October 16, 2012, 10:43 AM

NDSU scab fighter retires

Fusarium head blight — scab — was the biggest disease threat to the region’s small grains crops in recent decades. Marcia McMullen, North Dakota State University’s most visible and valuable scientist to help farmers in the region battle the disease, has retired.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Fusarium head blight — scab — was the biggest disease threat to the region’s small grains crops in recent decades.

Marcia McMullen, North Dakota State University’s most visible and valuable scientist to help farmers in the region battle the disease, has retired.

McMullen, extension plant pathologist, cleaned out her office on Oct. 15. McMullen says she chose the retirement date so the university could find a replacement before the 2013 crop season. She’d been a fixture at NDSU for 28 years.

She came to NDSU in 1984 and worked in all wheat and barley research, and in Integrated Pest Management. She was promoted to full professor in 1996 and was the first female to obtain the rank of full professor in NDSU’s College of Agriculture, as it was then known.

Jack Rasmussen, a professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology, says McMullen’s efforts against scab disease in small grains will define her legacy. The disease caused some $2 billion in yield and quality losses throughout the 1990s.

“When scab devastated the state’s wheat crop in 1993, Dr. McMullen immediately made managing the disease her mission,” Rasmussen wrote in an internal department memo.

McMullen remembers how all of the minds in industry — scientists, grain mills, commodity organizations and farm groups — came together to form the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative to battle the disease.

“We had major areas of research that were established — breeding, germplasm discovery and enhancement, food safety and toxicology,” she says. McMullen was one of the key leaders in the fusarium head blight management group, working on crop rotation, fungicide application techniques, and was on the group’s executive committee.

Rasmussen called McMullen a “trailblazer, a world authority on management of wheat and barley scab,” who frequently was invited to speak overseas, and who has received the highest honors in extension. He says she’ll be remembered as a scientist with “one foot in the furrow” who helped “each and every grower in the state, and who made a difference.”

Recognition

Agweek magazine in 1993 named her one of the 10 agricultural figures in the region who “made a difference,” a designation she said was important to her. She worked with state wheat growers and the North Dakota congressional delegation to establish the USWBSI.

McMullen says the discussions for effort started in 1997 and the first meetings were held in 1998. The program funds scab research around the country, including work at NDSU that helped develop scab-tolerant hard red spring wheat varieties that are in use today.

“I will miss the people terribly,” McMullen says.

Sam Markell, plant pathologist for broad-leaf crops, says McMullen has been the “matriarch” of the department, and she was a true mentor for him in his work.

McMullen says she’ll continue to live in the Fargo area, where three of her four grown children live. She says she is finishing some reports and book chapters and will continue a business she’s developed in scientific editing and grant review work. She is married to Kevin Thorsness, a Bayer CropScience technical services representative.

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