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Health, food and teaching

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Suzanne Driessen has always been a teacher, though she began her career as a nurse.

"I found that I really liked the teaching aspect of nursing," said Suzanne. "Then I went back to school for health education."

Being an Extension educator in food safety was a natural fit when she joined Extension 17 years ago at the Morrison County office. She is now based at the St. Cloud regional office.

"Some people say that food safety is common sense. I always say, 'if you don't know, you don't know.'"

And it is certainly important to know. The Center for Disease Control estimates that each year about one in six Americans get sick with foodborne illness, and most of these could have been prevented. Foodborne illness can even be life threatening to young children, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

The University of Minnesota Extension food safety program "exists to help prevent foodborne illness and protect public health here in Minnesota," said Suzanne. They accomplish this in a variety of ways for consumer, food processing and food service audiences.

The thorough food safety website is the main channel the program uses to reach consumer audiences. In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in food preservation. With the local food movement, there has been plenty of demand for education related to canning your own fruits and vegetables. This worked well with Suzanne's special interest in the technology side of teaching: she developed mini-modules like the boiling water canning method and stop BOT (botulism) that are available online.

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"Food preservation is based on science--it's different from cooking," said Suzanne. Indeed, recipes cannot be improvised without serious risk.

For those working in food processing and food service, the program provides research-based information on processing methods, hazards and regulations to help keep Minnesotans safe. Their signature continuing education re-certification online course for food service managers, Serve It Up Safely, has been around for 10 years!

Suzanne is currently working with Minnesota Farmers Market Association to develop food sampling training for farmers market vendors after Governor Dayton signed the Safe Food Sampling bill into law last spring.

Now that gardens are bountiful, you'll find Suzanne canning her own fruits and vegetables--and teaching Minnesotans how to safely preserve their produce.


Priming minds for decision making

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It takes 10 to 12 years before a walnut tree can produce a commercial crop for the next 60 to 70 years. Yet growers still plant them--in the face of considerable uncertainty.

That continues to intrigue Kent Olson since his days working as an Extension economist at the University of California-Davis. Today he explores the same principle, though on a shorter time scale and with different crops, while here at the University of Minnesota as an Extension specialist and professor of applied economics.

Kent Olson in his office

"Even planting a crop or buying cattle or feeder pigs: the uncertainty is out there for six months. How do you decide? How do you protect your potential profit?" asks Kent.

It comes down to making decisions, and how we make decisions is of peak interest to Kent. Once you decide to make the investment, how do you decide what to grow? How to grow? What machinery to buy? What about insurance? And what is the market going to do?

One decision begets another.

Kent explained that many of the big decisions we make--big in that that they affect us down the line--are made spur of the moment, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

"It goes back to students taking tests. Your first guess is probably right, but how many times have we gone back and changed it? Then it is graded and you realize the first guess was right."

Extension helps farm managers and producers make better decisions by delivering research-based education. It's the information and stories that stick with farm managers.

"So when it comes time to make that decision--on the spur of the moment even--they have the background and are ready to roll," said Kent.

Farm bill analysis is currently occupying Kent's time. Kent takes example farms and applies different scenarios: such as insurance products, percent coverage, yield and acres. He looks at forecasts and budgets. He looks at the impacts of different choices along the way.

"I'm trying to help farm managers see if, in a very complicated situation, there are some easy signals."

His initial assessment: "Your choice of insurance coverage doesn't have the biggest effect on which option within the farm bill. But what you think the prices are going to be in the future really does. So pay attention to the price forecasts."

What makes a successful farm manager? There's no concrete answer. Yes, education and psychology are likely, but it's hard to evaluate. It also comes down to management characteristics: a bit of aggressiveness, flexibility, and curiosity. It's about looking for opportunity and threats and willingness to change. Extension helps farm managers recognize those opportunities and threats.

Of course, sometimes success comes down to a bit of luck.

"Some of it is the grandparents or great-grandparents stopped the wagon at the right place. On the right soil. Someone made a decision at some point in time that turned out to be gloriously right."

Even before she began at Extension, Sally Noll began making connections with the turkey industry.

Sally Noll

Sally Noll

Her mentor, Paul Waibel, a professor in turkey nutrition at the time, insisted on it for his employees including Sally, who was working in his lab before she even began graduate school.

"He was good about making sure we interacted with industry, and I liked that contact," said Sally, Extension specialist.

After starting her Extension position, she worked with and was mentored in Extension programing by David Halvorson (Extension avian veterinarian) who provided her with a strong foundation in working with producers and areas of turkey production other than nutrition.

These connections, and her mentors' focus on the producer, have influenced Sally over the course of her nearly three-decade long career in Extension. Today, Sally continues to ensure her research and programming is applicable and useful to producers.

Many times, Sally's research findings, which are generally focused on nutrition and feeding, can be put to work by producers almost immediately. Starting in 2001 she began studying distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS), a byproduct of ethanol production. At that time distrust prevailed among producers about feeding it to their livestock. Even making it 10 percent of the feed seemed like a stretch. But it was becoming increasingly available and questions abounded.

Sally worked with her advisory group of nutritionists. Sally developed trials to determine how much DDGS could be added to the feed. The results were surprising: she found that depending on the age of the bird, they could easily have 20 percent or more of their feed in DDGS. This information was particularly invaluable in 2008, when feed prices shot up and there was not enough corn to go around.

"Here we are 13 years later, and now everyone knows about distillers grains," said Sally.

It's safe to say the Extension turkey program, led by Sally, is one of the reasons Minnesota is the number one turkey producing state in the country.

"It would be nice to take all the credit," joked Sally. "But there are a lot of reasons including teamwork with other U of M units, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the industry itself."

The entrepreneurial turkey Extension program includes Turkey Health School, which is an intensive two-day workshop held in conjunction with Rob Porter of the Diagnostic Lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Because this top-rated workshop is so hands-on, they limit the number of attendees to around 50 producers. In addition to her general speaking circuit, Sally leads the poultry portion of the Minnesota Nutrition Conference (the conference is now in its 75th year).

This spring, a producer commented that "[the industry] felt I knew them, and they trusted me to know their perspectives and communicate that in the University system," said Sally.

That's what Extension can do.

Close up on Kathy Zuzek

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The Master Gardener Core Course participants are enthusiastic. Very enthusiastic.

"They're an audience who love what I love. They are so avid for information. After teaching the three-hour class, I come home all jazzed up. And also feeling like I've been run over by a semi!"

Kathy Zuzek, Extension educator in horticulture, loves teaching. She's worked in horticulture for about 25 years and started at Extension in 2008. But did you know she got her start in forestry?

"I've always had a strong interest in plant material, especially from a conservation and environmental perspective." So she earned her bachelor's degree in forest science from the U of M.

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Kathy Zuzek with Northern Accent Roses

She was a forest pathology technician during school and after graduation. She worked primarily on oak wilt, Dutch elm disease and dwarf mistletoes. She recalls peering through the electron microscope at wood decay, studying its impact on the cell structure.

"I'm glad I have my forestry background; it combined with horticulture to give me a broad base of knowledge," said Kathy.

Getting her master's in plant breeding was Kathy's first step into the horticulture profession. She was part of the U of M Woody Landscape Plant Breeding program at the Landscape Arboretum, where she stayed for 20 years breeding hardy trees and shrubs that can handle Minnesota winters. She worked on the world renowned Northern Lights Azaleas and Northern Accent Roses.

Her work in Extension is focused on trees, shrubs and vines. Lately she has been working on improving the curriculum for the Master Gardener core course, which is the class people take as a step to becoming a Master Gardener volunteer. Every fall, Kathy helps teach and run the pesticide safety re-certification workshops (LPAT) for commercial and non-commercial pesticide applicators.

She is now writing articles for the woody landscape section of the Extension website to help gardeners identify their shrubs and select the right shrubs for their conditions.

Kathy is leading, managing and coordinating trials of shrubs as part of the program known as Earth-Kind. Earth-Kind began at Texas A&M Extension and focuses on finding plants that are tolerant to insects and diseases and do not require a lot of inputs like water and fertilizer. Many different cultivars of a shrub species are planted across several states in the Upper Midwest and evaluated over a four-year period. Each plot contains four plants of each of the cultivars being trialed.

One particular plot of hydrangeas at the Landscape Arboretum garners plenty of public interest.

"It's a stunning display. They are wildly popular. When I'm there gathering data, I end up answering questions from the public--it's informal education," said Kathy.

The Earth-Kind program data on hydrangeas will appear in professional peer-reviewed journals, in gardening magazines and on the Extension website. Next up will be ninebark, a shrub native to Minnesota; Kathy is already selecting cultivars and sites.

It's sure to be another rewarding season!

Cover crops in Minnesota? Just ask Jill

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Around Extension and in Minnesota's crops crowd, the name "Jill Sackett" has become synonymous with "cover crops."

Jill's professional work with cover crops began just over five years ago when she started with Extension as a local educator. But she's been familiar with cover crops since her childhood. She grew up in Martin County where a lot of canning crops are grown, making cover crops a sensible choice after harvest occurs in June, July or August.


Jill Sackett

Jill Sackett


Now her work is focused on education about cover crops and their benefits--even in row crops. Cover crops boast a host of usefulness: increasing organic matter and nutrients, preventing erosion, suppressing weeds and providing forage--among others.

With so many benefits, why is not every producer using cover crops?

"Because it changes management," said Jill. And with management changes come questions, and that's where Extension--and Jill--comes in with research-based curriculum.

For example, perhaps a producer is used to tilling fields each fall. And the expense to pay for aerial seeding in August is a change. Cover crops can affect nutrient management. The list goes on.



SWROC cover crop demo plot

Steve Quiring


Cover crop demo plot at SWROC


Jill's Extension programming, such as the recent Cover Crop Symposium in St. Cloud, helps answer management questions while showing what's possible with cover crops. Jill also serves as one of the state coordinators for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).

"I could talk about cover crops all day. I feel it is something that helps soil and water quality. I have the passion for it and the belief that it can help increase yields and better the environment," said Jill.

There's no blanket statement on what works with cover crops. It comes down to that producer's goals.

"It becomes specific quickly. It's best to have a conversation one-on-one or in a small group. You can think about a field--where it is, its moisture, and its fertility."

For example, Jill worked with a dairy producer in southeast Minnesota. He took some corn for silage near the barn, and in its place he wanted to plant cover crops for the first time. Jill worked with him to come up with a strategy based on his goals: he hoped for fall and spring grazing for his cattle, and he wanted to see which species worked best in the space. He planted winter rye and winter triticale to see which species came through better.

It ended up being too dry for grazing in the fall. But in the spring, the winter rye came through better than the winter triticale in terms of pounds per acre. The producer was pleased with the three to four weeks of grazing provided during a time when hay prices were exceptionally high.

The future of cover crops in the state looks promising. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has included cover crops as a strategy in nutrient reduction work, so it seems the number of acres will keep increasing.

As Jill said, "Cover crops are here to stay."

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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