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Tending to sick taters:Professor with local ties is a renowned authority on potato diseases

In the wee hours of the morning on a frigid winter day in 1960, Neil Gudmestad awoke to the sound of his father's voice. "Happy birthday, son," his dad said. "Now get to work." There were chores to do around the family farm and Gudmestad was, as ...

Gudmestad
Neil Gudmestad, who grew up in North Dakota and now spends much of his time at his lake home near Richville, is a Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at North Dakota State University. Submitted photo

In the wee hours of the morning on a frigid winter day in 1960, Neil Gudmestad awoke to the sound of his father’s voice.

“Happy birthday, son,” his dad said. “Now get to work.”

There were chores to do around the family farm and Gudmestad was, as of that very day, considered old enough to help out.

He had just turned the ripe old age of eight.

Every morning from then on, until the day he left home for college, Gudmestad pulled himself out of bed early to work on the farm. It wasn’t necessarily an easy upbringing, but he says it was how he learned the value of hard work.

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Today, decades later and nearing the end of a long, distinguished career as a researcher and professor, Gudmestad looks back on his childhood with gratitude. He remembers the farm fondly and credits his father as a major source of influence and inspiration – the key person behind his strong work ethic.

He believes his professional achievements are directly tied to that work ethic.

“My father always said that, to be successful, all you have to do is outwork the other person,” Gudmestad said in a recent interview with the Focus. “I’ve lived my whole career believing that.”

Gudmestad, a Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at North Dakota State University, has managed to ‘outwork’ his way to the top of his field. Though he humbly claims to have no real talents (other than a knack for discovering other talented researchers, whom he then recruits to his team), his lengthy list of honors, awards and accomplishments reveal another side to that story.

 

Awards and honors

Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Gudmestad has become a world-recognized authority on the biology and management of potato diseases. He has written hundreds of journal articles, peer-reviewed book chapters and technical papers, and is frequently invited to speak at national and international academic and agricultural industry meetings.

Just this year, Gudmestad was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 World Potato Congress held in Beijing, China, for his contributions to the potato industry worldwide.

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One year earlier, in 2014, he received the Partnership Award from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture for integrating research, education and extension.

Also in 2014, he became the first recipient of the Neil C. Gudmestad Endowed Chair of Pathology at NDSU. Established through contributions from potato growers, processors, agricultural chemical manufacturers and other related industries, the endowed chair is the first fully endowed faculty position at the school. It is also the first time a sitting faculty member has had a position named in his or her honor.

Gudmestad joined NDSU as a tenure-track assistant professor in 1985, after a brief stint as a high school science teacher in Tower City, N.D. Once established as a researcher, he served the pathology section of the Potato Association of America as chair, vice-chair and director. He also was on the editorial board of the American Potato Journal and associate editor of Phytopathology.

Numerous honors over the years have included the Research Scientist of the Year-Early Career title from the N.D. Agricultural Experiment Station, the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association Meritorious Service Award, the National Potato Council Researcher of the Year title, the Eugene R. Dahl Excellence in Research Award and the Fred Waldron Excellence in Research Award.

Gudmestad is an honorary life member of the Potato Association of America, and a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society. His title of Distinguished Professor at NDSU puts him among an elite group of just 10 Distinguished Professors ever named by the school.

 

The relevance of his research

Not one to create knowledge “simply for knowledge’s sake,” Gudmestad said he likes to create knowledge that will ultimately solve a problem for potato producers. Because of this two-pronged approach to research, his work has not only advanced the science of plant pathology but also benefited the commercial potato industry.

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Like a doctor attends to sick patients, Gudmestad attends to sick potatoes, sometimes diagnosing what ails them and sometimes curing it – or at least relieving the symptoms enough to maintain a viable product.

One case in point: his work with the ‘zebra chip’ potato disease. This invasive pathogen, which he describes as “very destructive,” was likely brought to the United States from Central America or Southern Mexico via an insect. It quickly spread from southern Texas all the way to the Northwest, where a large percentage of U.S. potatoes are grown.

Gudmestad was part of an important five-year study of the disease, one that undoubtedly saved potato producers millions of dollars in damages, and spared crops from being destroyed.

“We went from knowing nothing about this disease to developing strategies and tactics to manage it,” he explained. “We learned enough about it in five years to keep potatoes economically viable” in affected areas of the U.S.

He and his team have also studied diseases such as ring rot, early and late season blight, the mop top virus and many more, as well as other issues that pertain to the growth of potatoes, such as fungicide efficacy and resistance. Recently, in response to industry demand after public concern about pesticide use on potatoes, they’ve been working on biological methods of disease management.

For example, in the case of early blight, Gudmestad said an average potato grower uses 12 to 15 fungicides to control the disease. His team has made it possible for producers to reduce the use of these fungicides by about half by replacing them with biological methods. It’s still not a perfect science – he said no biological fungicides are proven to work 100 percent of the time – but it’s a start.

 

A ‘writer,’ a ‘cheerleader’ and a consultant

At this point in his career, Gudmestad is no longer a “bench scientist,” as he calls it. Rather, he oversees a staff of eight full-time researchers and two graduate students. The bulk of his time is spent writing grants to fund his team’s research, as well as writing annual reports and academic articles and other papers for clients and peers.

“I’m a fundraiser first, a writer second and a cheerleader third,” he said. “I let everybody know they’re doing a good job and to keep doing more of it. I couldn’t do it without (my staff).”

Research, he said, is a career that’s always changing, because cultural priorities change and the science evolves. Thirty years ago, for example, very few people were worried about climate change and thus very few scientists were studying it. Today, that’s a totally different story. It’s the same in his field of plant pathology.

“Every discipline changes over time,” he said. “That’s really made it exciting, because you have to basically reinvent yourself every few years to stay current and to stay where the funding streams are. (It’s rewarding for) those of us who are willing to adapt and change without losing interest.”

Gudmestad continues to teach about one class every other year, but he plans to retire from NDSU by 2019, so his instruction time is winding down.

Outside of NDSU, he does part-time consulting work for major potato producers such as the R.D. Offutt Company. He consults on roughly 20 percent of the potato acres in the U.S., for clients in Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska and other states.

The work varies from year to year, he said, but usually involves disease management. He develops data for his clients, and then helps them implement disease management plans.

Sometimes he assists in other ways, as needed. Last year, when Offutt was short on agronomers, Gudmestad stepped in to do the soil management and crop production for half of the company’s Perham farm.

 

Local ties

Gudmestad grew up on a small family farm, homesteaded by his grandfather in 1886, in southern Barnes County, N.D. The farm was later taken over by his father, and then by two of his brothers. He wasn’t needed there anymore after high school, so he left and became the only person in his family to attend college.

He went to Valley City State University with a double major in chemistry and biology, but realized he missed agriculture and so went on to graduate school at NDSU, where he studied plant pathology.

It was there where he met the woman he now calls one of his biggest inspirations in life, his wife, Arne Gudmestad.

“She’s the hardest working person I know,” he said. “She’s an amazing person.”

A retired elementary school music teacher, Arne is currently the chairperson of Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger in Otter Tail County, a hugely influential charitable organization that provides food and food assistance to those most in need in the Otter Tail area.

In the mid-1990s, the couple bought a piece of property on Otter Tail Lake next to Arne’s parents. They built a cabin on the lot, and later built an expansion. Today, Arne is retired and spends all her time there. Neil stays there as often as work allows.

They have two children, a daughter who’s an associate professor of Spanish linguistics at Virginia Tech, and a son who’s in charge of regional marketing for a major insurance software company.

A writer, editor and mom of four (two kids, two dogs), Marie's been in the newspaper business for over 20 years. She started at the Detroit Lakes Tribune in 2017 after working just down the road at the Perham Focus for several years. Before that, she was at the Herald-Review in Grand Rapids, Minn.
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