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End of a Research Era

Friday, December 15, 2006
filed under: Research and Development

There comes a time when all good things must come to an end. That is the situation with the recent retirement announcement of USDA ARS sunflower geneticist/breeder Dr. Jerry Miller and his technician of 17 years, Dale Rehder.

Jerry Miller has been more than a sunflower geneticist. He has been a leader, a futuristic thinker and always a cheerleader for the crop. So well known is Miller throughout the sunflower industry, that the easy-going, down-to-earth crop scientist is often referred to simply as ‘Jerry.’

Jerry’s roots started on a farm in far western Nebraska, where his father was a wheat-fallow farmer. Jerry started his undergraduate work at the University of Nebraska and finished his Ph.D. at North Dakota State University. He spent much of his early research work on wheat. After joining USDA ARS, he worked on flax, and shifted to sunflower full time in the late 70s.

The USDA ARS Sunflower Unit is located on the campus of NDSU. It is a multi- disciplinary group of scientists, with multiple objectives that includes providing breeding material to the private sector for eventual incorporation into hybrids.

Jerry’s early sunflower work with then plant pathologist Dave Zimmer was the incorporation of downy mildew resistance from wild species that remains part of most hybrids today. A lot of early work was on yield, standability and oil content. That included trading germplasm with foreign scientists, including Russian breeders during the Cold War.

In 30 years of sunflower breeding, he remembers that being in the right place at the right time can really pay off. One day in the early 1990s he was having coffee with a group of weed scientists from the university. Dr. John Nalejawa had just returned from a regional weed meeting and mentioned that a Kansas State University weed scientist, Kassim Al-Katib, had recently collected wild sunflower seed from a Kansas soybean farmer. The wild sunflower appeared to be resistant to Pursuit herbicide. Jerry wasted no time calling Kassim and in four days had the seed in his hand – that is how the industry got Clearfield® sunflower.

The signature moment of Miller’s career, however, may be the transformation of the U.S. oil sunflower industry to NuSun®, which began with an industry visit to Miller’s office in 1995, wondering if a mid-oleic sunflower was genetically possible.

Once the NSA board decided to move forward, Jerry was responsible for getting breeding material out to the private seed companies in a hurry, organizing extensive farmer hybrid trials, and being the seed industry spokesperson in industry meetings. Miller was recognized with a prestigious UDSA award for his leadership in this novel development.

A devastating time in his career was the 1999 crop, which was decimated by Sclerotinia head rot. Sclerotinia has always been an elusive disease for a number of broadleaf crops, including sunflower, but nevertheless, Miller somehow felt responsible, despite Mother Nature’s involvement and the inherent difficulty of breeding for Sclerotinia resistance. “I thought I should have seen it coming and reacted quicker,” said Miller. “I felt so helpless.”

Miller and others did not long lament the 1999 disaster. The Sclerotinia Initiative was established with research funding soon thereafter, and for the last several years breeding material and finished hybrids have been tested under mist irrigation nurseries which mimic the environmental requirements for the disease. Miller’s group has released several resistant genetic lines in both oil and confections, and the combined work of the private and public sectors has dramatically advanced the level of commercial hybrid tolerance in a few short years.

Jerry’s friend and research partner for the last 16 years has been his technician Dale Rehder, who is also retiring at the end of this year.

“There is a good chemistry between the two of us,” Jerry relates. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and that has allowed us to work as a team. Dale has a great work ethic and he is always willing to go the extra mile. I have complete confidence in him.”

Rehder is a Minnesota native, has a masters degree in plant pathology and began his work at the Sunflower Unit in 1974. He says that working with Miller has been a great experience. He agrees with Miller that the high points of their work included NuSun, Clearfield, low saturates and Sclerotinia tolerance. “We have worked on Sclerotinia my entire career and have made good progress over the last five years with the funds from the Sclerotinia Initiative and the construction of the misting systems,” says Rehder.

What does the future hold for continuing the work of Miller and Rehder? Federal budgets are tight, and USDA ARS funding has not kept up with costs of doing research. The Sunflower Unit is no exception, with minimal infusion of new funds in the operating budgets for years.

However, there is unanimity within the industry that the breeder/geneticist position is foremost and must be continued. “Disease and insect resistant genetic material can only be made available to the private sector if a breeder is part of the USDA team.” That was the conclusion of a customer focus group made up of private seed company breeders who met in March, 2006, to discuss sunflower research objectives.

So the search for replacements is likely to begin soon. Needed is a breeder with molecular training, a leader, a hard worker in the field and in the lab, a self starter, a communicator with a ‘can do’ attitude. Needed is a technician who can support the breeder and together move the research to the next level. Indeed, there are big shoes to fill. – Larry Kleingartner

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