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At age 16, he started a job on a research farm. On evenings and weekends he worked on his family's farm. At the end of the day, the hard work always felt worthwhile. Plus he knew he could make a career of it.

"I always knew with agriculture there would be jobs because people need to eat," said Andy Robinson, Extension potato agronomist.


Andy Robinson

Andy continues his work in agriculture and research today, servicing potato growers in a joint U of M and NDSU appointment. In 2011 US potato production, North Dakota rated number six in the country, followed by Minnesota at number 7. Our potato growing region is unique in that a variety of potatoes are grown. The Red River Valley is famous for the red potato.

"We produce the most in the nation here in the Red River Valley," said Andy.

Herbicide interaction is one of the areas where Andy focuses research. Potatoes are sensitive to herbicides such as glyphosate, and low levels can reach potatoes from drift, inversion, or tank contamination. The herbicide travels through the plant to the tubers where it stays until the seed is planted in the spring.


Candelabra formation of shoots due to herbicide interaction.

That's when the symptoms may appear, often in an erratic and slow emergence pattern. Other symptoms include bending, twisting and yellowing of leaves; multiple shoots from an eye; candelabra formation of shoots, prolific roots or reduced rooting, and/or enlarged shoots. These symptoms don't appear at the time of plant and glyphosate interaction--the problem comes with emergence the following year.

"Winter tests" help determine whether the seed is contaminated. While North Dakota and Minnesota are frozen solid, seed samples are sent to sunny Hawaii or Florida and planted. They are observed for symptoms. And yes, Andy was able to escape to Florida to walk the fields!


Andy at a field day in Becker, MN.

Andy's Extension work helps educate producers on the key steps they can take to address issues with herbicide interactions. One critical step is to establish good communication--with neighbors and the seed supplier. Neighbors need to be aware of sensitive crops in the area before spraying herbicide. Of course, training pesticide applicators is related. Interviewing seed suppliers to learn whether they're implementing best practices will help protect the next crop.

Another recommendation is to plant wheat or barley borders around the potato field, which helps keep the potato plot farther away from potential drift. In the long run, this is a worthwhile step.

"As an Extension specialist, part of my job is to get that information out," Andy said.

What's next for this field? The challenge is how to improve output while reducing inputs. Potatoes use a good deal of water and nitrogen. Andy is looking at quantifying the agronomic value of new potato varieties that require less water and nitrogen. He is also excited about opportunities to use technology to reduce other inputs.

Looks like he'll continue to spend time in the field--working on research and education.

Being outdoors with smart and creative folks

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The love of nature started in childhood when playing outdoors in Duluth—no matter the season.

"We thought we were cool because we were so tough, playing outside in negative 75 degrees," laughed Amy Rager, Extension educator and program director for the Minnesota Master Naturalist Program.


Amy's first exposure to Extension began in St. Louis County 4-H, where Sherry Boyce was her mentor. Then after a beloved college job at Jay Cooke State Park, where Amy chased bears and found lost campers (not at the same time), she landed a job in Extension providing 4-H programming.

In 2004 her work became solely natural resources and environment, which was also around the time the Master Naturalist Program was getting up and running in Minnesota, thanks to Rob Blair, who is the faculty program director for Master Naturalist. A 2005 grant from the National Science Foundation got the first pilot class rolling: Big Woods, Big Rivers.

The mission of the Minnesota Master Naturalist Program is to promote awareness, understanding, and stewardship of Minnesota's natural environment by developing a corps of well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities.

The program trains the trainers, who in turn teach the volunteers. Instructors and volunteers live and work all around the state.

"Our instructors are incredible." Amy cites an example of working with instructor and botanist Craig Lee. "He knows the Latin name for every plant, and I know the common name. Doing tours with him is really entertaining!"

There are three courses covering the three ecological provinces of Minnesota. Volunteers usually take the course of the biome in which they live. The hands-on courses have a local feel, while also teaching general concepts of ecology and geology.


Taking one of the courses is only the first step for a Master Naturalist—it's really about the remarkable volunteer service they provide in their communities. Master Naturalist volunteers lead stewardship projects such as invasive species removal or restoration projects, education and interpretive service such as public presentations or leading hikes, and/or citizen science service where volunteers collect essential data for research projects such as monarch larvae or water quality monitoring. Volunteers can also contribute to program support by running local chapters.

Since its inception in 2005 and as of the end of 2012, Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteers have logged 204,704 service hours.

As you can imagine, Amy interacts a lot with the volunteers, which is also her favorite part of the job. "I love the volunteers. They are so smart and creative."

One word: taxes

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Did a bead of sweat start to form on your forehead? As we end another year, thinking about starting taxes is on everyone's mind. But agricultural taxes—and the closely related labor management—is on Rob Holcomb's mind all year long.

"I've always loved working with numbers," said Rob.

Rob, an Extension educator based in the Marshall Regional Office, works on the Agricultural Business Management team and focuses primarily on the tax and analysis and labor management programs.

Agriculture has been part of Rob's life since day one. He grew up on a farm in Iowa. In school he was heavily involved with FFA, and he even served as the chapter president. Then in college he studied agricultural education. All along he saw the imperative role of risk management in agriculture.

Access to current, up-to-date information related to agricultural taxation issues is a critical component of the tax education program, an Extension program that Rob leads. Tax code shifts year to year—sometimes subtly, sometimes substantially. The tax education program educates farmers on the changes, and how it affects their business.

Each year is unique: "This year in southeast Minnesota, a lot of crop insurance was collected. There are deferrable payments and rules involved that people should be aware of," said Rob.

Rob also plays a key role in the labor management program, which targets farm business owners and managers who hire and manage family and non-family labor. The program educates on best practices related to supervision and management of employees. The labor management team is currently working on an employee manual template that farm managers can customize for their own use.

The labor management team, including Rob, received an award for the Employment Skills for Today: Planning for Success program and curricula at the Galaxy conference.

At the Joint Council of Extension Professional's Galaxy IV conference in Pittsburgh, PA in September, members of the labor management team received a National Finalist Search for Excellence in Farm and Ranch Management award for the Employment Skills for Today: Planning for Success program and curricula. Labor management team members are Rob, Chuck Schwartau, David Bau, Gary Hachfeld, Antonio Alba Meraz, and Don Nitchie.

Challenges in 2014
This year we're entering a difficult time related to land rent: while prices on corn and soybean have dropped, land rents have remained high.

"The short-term challenge is cash flow. I recommend looking closely at budgets for the coming year. I had a teacher say in class 30 years ago, 'If you can't make it work on paper, you can't make it work in real life,'" said Rob.

It's a good thing producers can rely on Extension, and educators like Rob, to provide research-based strategies in managing risk.

Keeping forests healthy

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Julie Miedtke gets it: protect people and their livelihoods by keeping forests healthy.

Itasca County has two million acres of rural forested land. The forest faces threats including from wildfires and invasive species. As the county educator in Itasca, Julie works on programs that help the forest to be productive and enjoyable while combating these challenges.

Itasca County has invested in Firewise, which is a national program. The Itasca County program works with community groups and homeowners to encourage reviewing risks associated with wildfires and how to mitigate them. Once a fire starts, they can spread very quickly--consuming everything in its path. But there are real measures property owners can take to help protect their homes. One is to improve the home's defensible space, which helps prevent the fire from reaching the building. It also helps give the firefighters space to protect the building.

Chipper Days is a program developed by the Itasca County Wildfire Protection Plan Implementation Team, which includes Extension. Woody material donated by property owners are collected, chipped, and used for renewable energy. In 2012, 313 property owners participated in the program contributing 24,175 hours of volunteer time; 2,698 tons of wood debris were taken to Minnesota Rapids Energy Center to be used for renewable energy.

The programs also teach property owners about creating access and egress for emergency service vehicles.

"Our volunteer fire departments come to help us when we need them," said Julie. "Let's help them get down the driveway."

People use their land in different ways. Some people stay all year and others may have a seasonal cabin. Some rely on the land for their livelihood, such as with non-timber forest products.

Julie's programming in this area helps guide people as they make decisions regarding their livelihoods and forest resources. A few months after the workshop "Profit from the Land," a man had left a voicemail for Julie.

"He said in a quiet voice that the workshop changed his life. He is able to work and develop his craft in making furniture," said Julie. "It's rewarding--especially when you have a community that supports this work."

The Women's Woodland Network is another venue in which Julie provides education on how to manage forested acres for an audience that may not have traditionally been involved in these activities.

Julie recalled a woman landowner who needed a management plan. "I was able to get her connected to someone who developed a management plan and got her on the road to keeping the forest healthy."

A whole new world of microbes

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He didn't really want to take the required class in microbiology. But it ultimately introduced Extension specialist Dean Malvick to what he the calls "fascinating biological puzzles" at the core of his career.

"It opened up a whole new world of microbes," said Dean.

Bacteria. Fungi. Oomycetes. They infect when the time is right: environmental conditions are favorable and a host plant is present.


While plants do not have an immune system in the same way humans do, they're not defenseless. They engage and defend against such diseases as Goss's wilt in corn and brown stem rot or sudden death syndrome in soybean. Dean studies these plant diseases via field trials, greenhouse studies, and DNA-based diagnostic tests and microscopic analysis.

"It's an intricate relationship between microbes and plants," said Dean. "Plants have an active defense."

For example, there is Goss's wilt of corn, which is new to Minnesota since 2009. Symptoms appear as dark areas of the leaf that look like they've been soaked in water. Over time, spots of dried bacterial ooze that resemble varnish often appear on tan lesions. It can spread from the leaves to the stalk—sometimes killing the entire plant.

These diseases have very real implications. "Livelihoods depend on the productivity of the land and crop. Even if the disease is not devastating, it erodes yields."

Extension provides a valuable feedback loop with producers—hearing about what's going on out there can help Dean set research priorities. His Extension appointment allows Dean to keep people aware of problems—not just what's flashy and new.

"Through Extension, I can get my research results and other information to producers faster."

After eight years at University of Minnesota Extension, he knows he's here for the long run. And he's glad he took that microbiology class.

A watershed way of thinking

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Scientific explorer and geographer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) described a watershed as "that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."

Karen Terry, Extension educator, is working to help people understand their role in a watershed community through the Watershed Education Program.

Watersheds don't fit neatly into county borders. When counties work together--through a watershed plan--they are more effective in reaching water quality goals. This is a smart infrastructure shift, but getting there is a struggle. Education is vital to make it happen.

Fortunately for Karen, teaching is her favorite part of the job. "I love the moment when people get it. Or when I'm working with a group of people who maybe didn't want to be there, but by the end of the class you can see they're engaged and they understand."

In the Watershed Education Program, the main audience is decision makers including natural resource professionals, soil and water districts, DNR, PCA, county commissioners, and board of adjustment.

"We teach them to understand the impacts," said Karen. This helps give decision makers confidence to make decisions that help protect the water.

"I had a member of a board of adjustment in a county who took a stream class I taught. He later was approving or denying variances. He told me, 'Taking the class gave me the confidence to tell people that I learned that's a bad thing for the river.' [The program] gives them education, credibility, and confidence."

Going forward, Karen hopes to see more people thinking about water as a system. It is also essential that people take more responsibility and value water as a limited resource.

"As Minnesotans, we think we have lots of water, but we don't. It is a limited resource."

The best summer job turned career

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When Sam Bauer was 15 he got a summer job at a golf course in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He was hooked.

"The superintendent had to push me to leave at the end of every day," said Sam.

Sam Bauer

Sam Bauer

At the time Sam didn't know it could be a career—he just knew he enjoyed it. Fortunately, he heard about the turf program at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. After stints in Hong Kong (where he was the Olympic equestrian course superintendent) and Jacksonville (where he was assistant superintendent at the PGA Tour headquarters, TPC Sawgrass golf course), he ended back here at the U of M Extension as an educator in urban turf where his core audiences are consumers, Master Gardeners, and golf course superintendents.

"I knew it was the job I always wanted," said Sam.

Educating the public on species that achieve the consumers' aesthetic goals with less fertilizer, less water, and less mowing is one of Sam's goals. The public generally doesn't accept the look of native grasses as a lawn—too weedy and sparse. But they have options.

Sam Bauer

Sam working on instructional video

"People's expectations drive the species of grass that we recommend," said Sam. "Fine fescues, which is a group of five species, is turf that I turn to most often for lower maintenance environments. It is under-utilized in Minnesota. It winters well, and only requires about a quarter of the mowing that Kentucky bluegrass does."

Sam teaches about turfgrass management via a number of outlets including social media, where he is active and has attracted a following. He finds it allows for communicating the latest information quickly.

"I can just take a photo of what I'm seeing out there and let people know," said Sam. "People will send direct messages to ask their specific questions too."

After Field Day attendance shifted downward for a few years, Sam turned to e-learning with Virtual Field Day. It was made up of videos released day by day from various presenters, and it proved to be a success. Field Day will be virtual again this year; this format helps garner awareness and interest for the in-person Field Day, which will be brought back in the future.

Sam also enjoys conducting research. A key theme in research is coming up with sustainable and low-maintenance options, while still having an attractive lawn. One such study includes low-input turfgrasses in specific areas of the St. Paul campus. He's also studying plant growth regulators and wetting agents for golf course use, which will keep him busy through winter.

What does the future hold for this field? "In the next five to ten years, there will be more public and government pressure to do what this program is teaching now."

Sam will be ready to educate his audience on their options.

Farming, teaching, and team

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Extension Educator Lisa Behnken spends her "summer vacation" in the field equipped with a clipboard and sunscreen--researching and educating. And in some ways, she's been doing this since childhood (just without the clipboard).

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Behnken grew up on a farm she called a "diversified dairy farm." And thanks to her dad, farming and teaching have always gone hand in hand for her.

"My dad had us all involved with the farm. Yes, as labor, but he also gave us economic opportunities as well. We [kids] had a few of our own dairy cows--and that was an incentive for us," said Behnken. "We had fun. I always liked the science, math, and experiments."

In fact, her father was one of the influences for Behnken working at Extension. When Behnken was presented with two job offers, she chose the Extension position with her dad's advice.

She started as a county agent in Becker County in 1980. During that time she got her master's in crop and weed science. Since 1996 she has been in Rochester (back "home"), now as a regional educator in crops. She is currently working on several herbicide studies with Fritz Breitenbach at the U of M Rochester Research Site. One in particular focuses on herbicide timing in soybean that evaluates the effects of different timings of weed removal and the value of a pre-emergence herbicide.

Last year, southeast Minnesota was the nation's breadbasket due to severe drought in other regions. This year has been a difficult season in southeast Minnesota--a nearly 180-degree turn. First it was significant alfalfa winter injury or kill. That was followed by late season snows of 15 to 20 inches. Then it was rain, rain, and rain. Very few days were available for producers to get into the field to put down fertilizer or to plant.

"The joke in the area was, 'Which field did you get stuck in today?'" said Behnken. "People tried!"
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Behnken believes that one of the strengths of Extension is the team available to pull together resources needed by producers--particularly in times of crisis.

"We can respond very quickly and well to emergency issues. We have resources. We have good people who pull together," said Behnken. "One producer said to me, 'How did you know I needed that?'"

She also pointed out that Extension will see it through. "This isn't just a three- or five-month problem. This is a long haul. This will go all the way into next season."

She applauds the crops team, emphasizing that a good strong team makes the job fun.

"We look at problems, develop new resources, and put it into practice. We can be creative," said Behnken. "We hope to be one or two steps ahead."

A forest of curiosity

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"What kind of tree is this?" "What do they use that tree for?" "What is that insect?"

In 1965, Charlie Blinn's parents bought a summer and weekend place in remote western Connecticut. The 160 acres of forest inspired curiosity--particularly with Blinn's mother.

"My mom would ask a lot of questions, and it was the '60s, so I just used Google to find the answers," joked Blinn, Extension specialist in forest resources since 1984. Encyclopedias and other books were his resources of choice then. Though his methods have since changed, he never really stopped seeking answers about the forest.

Charlie Blinn

Charlie Blinn

Today many of the questions surround the future of the timber industry, after recent closures of major mills in and around Minnesota. Closures include Weyerhaeuser's Trust Joist mill in Deerwood (2007); Ainsworth's mills in Grand Rapids (2008), Cook (2009), and Bemidji (2009); Georgia-Pacific's hardboard plant in Duluth (2012); and Verso Paper's mill in Sartell (2012). Blinn, who has a 70 percent Extension appointment, focuses primarily on timber harvesting and road planning.

"Because of the mill closures, we're harvesting less wood in Minnesota, which has placed many logging businesses at a crossroads today," said Blinn. These aren't the only challenges loggers face: the forests in Minnesota are aging, which makes them more susceptible to fire, disease, and pests.

Scott Streble

Charlie Blinn teaching White Earth youth about GPS use

Blinn designs and conducts logger education programming across Minnesota. To better understand the current status of the logging sector in Minnesota and to identify training needs that respond to the rapidly changing dynamics within the industry, Blinn recently surveyed logging businesses and conducted focus groups with loggers and industrial foresters. He also serves on the board of the Minnesota Logger Education Program (MLEP).

In the 1990s, Blinn was actively involved with revamping Minnesota's forest management guidelines which are designed to mitigate timber harvesting impacts. His research today continues to help refine these strategies.

Blinn's work also extends beyond loggers. He teaches about GPS use, forest measurements, forest biomass, and soil health and other topics as part of Extension's White Earth Reservation Math and Science Academy, which offers science, technology, engineering, and math educational opportunities to White Earth youth.

Though he's many miles from those acres of forest in western Connecticut (which is still in the family), Blinn continues to ask and answer questions about the forest.

Listening with precision

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Marcia Endres spends plenty of time on farms listening to producers--and to cows.

"I work on cow comfort and welfare, because producers asked for it," said Endres, Extension dairy specialist.

Marcia Endres

Marcia Endres

One way Endres "listens" is through innovative sensor technologies. Sensors automatically collect rich data on how an individual cow is doing. What's her temperature? How much is she eating? How active is she?

"We use these technologies to score for health and to take measurements. Best management practices reduce mortality and disease--this gets back to welfare," said Endres.

These technologies are making inroads. The first Precision Dairy Conference in the US is June 26 and 27 at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, MN, and Endres is conference chair. An optional farm tour on June 25 will show attendees Precision technologies first hand. Experts in the field from around the world will present at the conference. Endres is also pleased about the four panels of producers who are using robotic milking, cow or parlor sensors, and automated calf feeders.

"Producers like to hear from other producers who are using the technologies," she said.

The Conference is attracting attendees from all over the world. About 600 are expected to attend. (There is still time to register!)

In addition to chairing the Precision Dairy Conference, Endres is the principal investigator of a USDA-funded study on automated calf feeders. The year-and-a-half study involves 38 farms that will each be visited every few months to score the calves for health and take other measurements. Endres will present initial study findings at the Precision Dairy Conference.

With a 75 percent Extension appointment, Endres enjoys studying in the field. Being outdoors is where she likes to be (she's also a Master Naturalist).

"My laboratory is a farm. For me, that's more fun," said Endres.

Jeff Hahn

Jeff Hahn

Jeff Hahn's answer may diverge from that of most people: "I get the camera and take a picture of it. Then I put it in my collection."

As an Extension entomologist, that answer makes plenty of sense. Specimens like these make excellent teaching aids in Hahn's workshops on urban entomology, the study of insects in and around buildings, gardens, and landscapes.

As a member of the horticulture team, Hahn has a 100 percent Extension appointment. His presentations and courses, such as the Master Gardener core course, provide practical knowledge so people can identify insects and understand whether they're friend or foe.

The hot topic right now? "Boxelder bugs," said Hahn. "People see them in their homes and assume they're reproducing inside. In reality, they just overwintered and are now becoming more active with warmer temperatures."

The insects that crop up have changed over the years since Hahn started at Extension in 1984. Emerald Ash Borer was unheard of not long ago. There have been surprises over the years too--such as the occasional exotic spider or cockroach. (It's worth noting that Hahn characterizes these as good surprises.)


Photo credit: Jeff Hahn

Brown marmorated stink bug

Hahn contributes to the online diagnostic modules (What insect is this? and What's wrong with my plant?), which continue to be powerful and popular features of Extension's website. Hahn is also a frequent writer on the Yard and Garden News blog, where you'll learn more about what is going on in the insect world--including new sightings of invasive insect pests like the brown marmorated stink bug.

Now that the weather has improved, keep an eye out for Hahn with his camera around campus or at the Landscape Arboretum. "I like to see what problems are out there. I walk around campus with my camera. Getting outside is a great part of the job."

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