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Robert Robinson: A Pioneer in Sunflower Research

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
filed under: Research and Development

An article in the January 1979 issue of The Sunflower began as follows: “When you are talking about pioneers in the business of sunflower research, the name of Dr. Bob Robinson inevitably comes up. Though he himself remains modest concerning his work, others will quickly point to the University of Minnesota agronomist as a scientist widely respected for his contributions to the sunflower industry and crop production in general.”

In this current issue, — one in which we report on the formation of a Minnesota sunflower checkoff council and discuss the remarkable arena of sunflower genome mapping and sequencing — it seems fitting to likewise recognize a real trailblazer of sunflower research in the United States.

Robert G. Robinson — also called “Robby” by some of his former colleagues and students — began his career-long passion with sunflower in 1948, shortly after receiving M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agronomy and soil science, respectively, from the University of Minnesota. He was appointed to head a just-established UM program concentrating on “new, uncommon or little-researched crops.” Over the next 38 years, until his retirement in 1986, Robinson studied more than 200 different plant species, focusing on their adaptability (or lack thereof) to Minnesota growing conditions.

(Exemplifying that broad range of study, an article in a 1986 issue of Minnesota Science carried this anecdote from a former colleague: “Once we got a question about some rare seed being used for bird feed. It was a species that no one else in the building had ever heard of. I had to go to some botany reference books to identify the species. But later I asked Bob about it. He said, ‘Oh, I tried that in some field plots about 15 years ago. It won’t work in Minnesota, but you can grow it in Texas and Oklahoma.’ ”)

In 1948 Robinson planted the first of what would be many sunflower variety trials, testing “Advance,” a low-oil Canadian hybrid produced through the self-incompatibility method. Oilseed prices were high at the time, lending hopes to a market for this new oil crop. But oil prices slumped shortly thereafter, coinciding with the introduction of better soybean varieties.

So Robinson turned his focus to sunflower’s use as a birdseed crop. Along with Advance, he helped develop “Arrowhead,” an earlier-maturing and larger-seeded cultivar, and another variety called “Mingren." Both were widely grown in the United States and Canada before birdseed and confection hbrids became available.

In 1953 Robinson and a fellow university researcher (Olaf Soine from the Crookston station) published an article in Minnesota Farm and Home Science titled “Sunflowers for Minnesota?” Since the mid-1940s, they noted, the state’s sunflower acreage had ranged from a few hundred to several thousand each year. The authors listed several potential uses: food (oil and meal), livestock feed, bird feed and fuel (hulls). To compare the per-acre oil production of sunflower and soybeans, they planted adapted varieties of the two crops side-by-side at three western Minnesota locations during multiple years. Sunflower’s oil yield averaged 379 lbs/ac across the 13 trials; that of soybeans, 201 lbs/ac.

During the following decades, in addition to his extensive work with other crops, Robinson conducted a voluminous number of studies on sunflower. His research encompassed crop management (e.g., planting date, population, fertility, harvesting), weed control, sunflower plant physiology and morphology. In the early 1960s, Robinson generated data providing the first public evidence that certain Russian open-pollinated varieties would yield well and produce 40% oil content or higher. Those findings helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of the U.S. oil sunflower crushing industry.

Gerhardt (Gary) Fick became acquainted with Robinson while a University of Minnesota student in the 1960s. Fick later served as Fargo-based USDA research geneticist from 1971 to 1977, becoming widely recognized for his work in the development of hybrid sunflower using the cytoplasmic male sterility and fertility restorer system. He then went on to a highly successful career as a commercial sunflower breeder with SIGCO Research and currently Seeds 2000. (Fick also has been one of the owners of both companies.)

“Dr. Robinson worked long hours in the field during the summer months, often preferring to do much of the planting, care and harvest of field trials himself rather than hire students or an assistant,” Fick wrote in his memoirs. “He never married. The story in the department was that at one time he had set a wedding date for a weekend in September, but cancelled at the last minute because of a sunflower trial that needed harvesting. His wife to be, seeing the handwriting on the wall, never rescheduled.”

Though he spoke at many field days and research forums, for the most part “Robby lived a reclusive and frugal life,” Fick noted. “He was modest, and very few people seemed to know of him or of his work.

“To the surprise of many, after he retired he contributed over one million dollars to various projects at the University of Minnesota. When he died in 2002, the [UM] Agronomy Department arranged a short memorial service for him at the student union. Not expecting a big crowd, they reserved space for 80 people. But in a deserving tribute to him, well over 300 showed up to pay their respects.”

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