Project GREEEN: 25 years of strengthening Michigan plant agriculture
The program is a partnership among MSU, the Plant Coalition, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — In the late 1990s, Michigan plant agriculture was at a critical juncture as applied research and extension programs were struggling for dependable funding. Insects, diseases and other challenges were threatening growers across commodities, and the demand for solutions outpaced the capacity to find them.
Leaders from the plant agriculture community came together in an effort to bolster this key aspect of Michigan’s economy. Administrators from Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) joined the Plant Coalition to discuss the framework of a partnership that would propel Michigan plant agriculture into the future.
Today, an oft-cited bragging point is that Michigan is the most diverse agricultural state in the country with abundant access to water, producing roughly 300 commodities. That’s partially a credit to the state’s rich resources — from freshwater to an array of soil types — but none of the successes are possible without a close partnership among growers, legislators and researchers.
Initially called the Plant Initiative, the product of these meetings would eventually be renamed Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs). The proposal was approved by the Michigan Legislature in 1997, supported by 45 commodity organizations, MDARD and MSU.
“It was the perfect time for this initiative to begin,” said Doug Buhler, MSU associate vice president for research and innovation. “There was a tremendous opportunity for MSU — with the talent and infrastructure in place — to become an even greater asset to Michigan plant agriculture through addressing emerging issues.”
Buhler joined the university in 2000 as chair of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences (now Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences), a role he held until 2005. He then moved to MSU AgBioResearch as associate director, eventually serving as director from 2013 to 2021. During his entire MSU tenure, he’s been involved with Project GREEEN, including as its longest-term coordinator from 2005 to 2021.
“Project GREEEN was built on and has thrived because of three things: need, capacity and trust,” Buhler said. “Growers need applied research to stay on top of emerging threats. MSU has the capacity to conduct that research. And there was trust from the industries that MSU could deliver on providing useful research and outreach. Those three pillars — and the flexibility that has been built into Project GREEEN from the very beginning — are the primary drivers of the program’s success.”
That foundation has made Project GREEEN what it is today, one of Michigan’s most valuable tools to ensuring the viability and competitiveness of the state’s plant agriculture economy.
According to an analysis by Steven Miller, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, the state of Michigan has invested more than $136.5 million into Project GREEEN over its 25 years. For every $1 invested, the program has generated more than $15 in statewide economic activity.
Addressing urgent problems
The structure of Project GREEEN is simple yet elegant. It supports faculty salaries, research infrastructure, a competitive grants program and rapid response funding.
The competitive grants program provides one- to two-year awards, meant to serve as a springboard to applying for more robust federal support. While the rapid response dollars are a small part of the overall Project GREEEN budget, they’ve played an important role.
Some of the first issues tackled by MSU researchers through Project GREEEN were a pesticide residue study with the Environmental Protection Agency; the dogwood borer, a pest of flowering dogwood trees; disease forecasting tools for vegetable growers; and the emerald ash borer, an invasive pest of ash trees across the U.S and Canada.
Talk to anyone involved in Project GREEEN, and the word that’s mentioned repeatedly is “flexibility.” It allows MSU scientists to be responsive to immediate industry needs. For Rufus Isaacs, University Distinguished Professor and extension specialist in the Department of Entomology, that attribute is critical to his research program’s success.
Isaacs joined MSU in 1999, and his position was supported by Project GREEEN. He connects with Michigan’s berry growers to create novel pest management approaches, in addition to working on pollinator conservation. Throughout his MSU tenure, there have been a multitude of emergent pest problems that his berry crop entomology team has been able to address with assistance from Project GREEEN funding.
In addition, the program has served as a launching point for his research, helping to secure preliminary data that’s used to apply for large federal grants.
“Project GREEEN has been essential for bringing teams at MSU together to respond to emergencies and to try new ideas that address grower challenges,” Isaacs said. “We can gain data from our state and under our conditions, and this puts us in a stronger position to apply to the national programs where you need evidence of grower support and preliminary data to have a good chance of being selected for funding.”
Through Project GREEEN support, Isaacs has studied several pests such as grape berry moth, potato leafhopper, Japanese beetle, spotted wing drosophila (SWD), and most recently spotted lanternfly. He has developed integrated pest management programs that have been widely adopted throughout Michigan.
The recommendations for Japanese beetle have been especially effective for Michigan blueberry growers. Through a combination of applying larvae-targeting soil pesticides around the perimeter of fields and removing host plants for larvae and adult beetles inside of fields, growers have been able to curtail the problem.
Another insect that was first explored by Isaacs and other members of the MSU Fruit Team through Project GREEEN is SWD, a small vinegar fly that infests berry and cherry crops. The invasive pest is native to Asia and has no natural predators in Michigan. A technician working with Isaacs discovered SWD for the first time in southwest Michigan in 2010 with assistance from Project GREEEN funding.
Since then, Isaacs has collaborated with growers, MSU researchers and fruit extension educators across the state to develop management strategies that include proper identification and pesticide timing recommendations. He is part of a team currently rearing and releasing the samba wasp — a native parasitoid from Asia — that researchers hope will offer biological control to reduce the SWD population.
Dennis Vander Kooi, a blueberry grower and owner of Woodland Enterprises Berry Farms in Zeeland, Michigan, and his family have partnered with Isaacs for years. Vander Kooi is a Michigan Blueberry Commission (MBC) board member, helping to set research priorities for the industry.
“Rufus is one of the nation’s leading researchers on SWD, and we’ve worked with others at MSU as well,” Vander Kooi said. “He’s run several experiments on our farm, and we’ve learned a lot from them. The MBC has supported this research and will continue to in the future as we look for effective ways to manage SWD.”
Isaacs noted that Project GREEEN has tremendous support from growers such as Vander Kooi because of its track record of delivering solutions.
“It focuses MSU research and extension teams on the priorities of Michigan plant agriculture,” he said. “Providing the framework with industry priorities, the support with competitive funding, and the flexibility to respond to urgent issues puts Michigan in a good spot by generating rapid answers to challenges. This all works toward keeping these industries and businesses competitive.”
When Courtney Hollender was searching for her first tenure-track faculty position after completing her postdoctoral work, she wanted to join a cooperative environment in which scientists had a passion for tree fruit research. As a molecular tree fruit physiologist, she’s interested in the development of plants and the mechanisms that control it.
“I found out fairly quickly that MSU is the ideal place for collaboration,” said Hollender, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture. “I can talk to anyone in the department or other departments, and that may lead to a new idea. Project GREEEN was something we talked about during my interview process as well, and it’s a big part of fostering those relationships.”
Hollender has been part of three Project GREEEN studies thus far, including tree training with peach and plum varieties, exploring apples of the same cultivar that ripen at different times, and sequencing the Montmorency tart cherry genome.
While Project GREEEN mostly funds applied research that’s quickly applicable to growers’ fields, the tart cherry genome sequencing involved basic science and longer-term goals.
Alongside Amy Iezzoni, a professor in the Department of Horticulture and the nation’s only tart cherry breeder, Hollender sought to identify tart cherry genes responsible for bloom timing. Using Project GREEEN dollars and additional support, the goal is to eventually create varieties that delay bloom to avoid harmful late-season frosts.
“One of the best things about Project GREEEN is that it’s support you can get relatively quickly compared to national grants, and we have the opportunity to test new ideas with colleagues we may not otherwise partner with,” Hollender said. “The tart cherry research is a great example. Many other crops have sequenced genomes already, and that tells us all sorts of useful things when it comes to breeding, such as the traits that promote growth, resiliency, size, taste and texture. We believe this information will be very beneficial for the industry moving forward.”
To complete the sequencing, Hollender and Iezzoni solicited the assistance of Robert VanBuren, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and genomics expert.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without Project GREEEN,” Hollender said. “For the larger national grants, we can demonstrate value to the industry because we’ve already been doing the work, so this type of startup funding is invaluable.”
Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientists discover dynamic solutions for food systems and the environment. More than 300 MSU faculty conduct leading-edge research on a variety of topics, from health and climate to agriculture and natural resources. Originally formed in 1888 as the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, MSU AgBioResearch oversees numerous on-campus research facilities, as well as 15 outlying centers throughout Michigan. To learn more, visit agbioresearch.msu.edu.