Promoting agricultural innovation: US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visits MSU to meet faculty, students

As the inaugural destination of his third “Back to Our Roots” tour around the country, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Michigan State University Tuesday, April 3.

As the inaugural destination of his third “Back to Our Roots” tour around the country, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Michigan State University (MSU) Tuesday, April 3.

The road trip stops at two additional locations in Michigan before heading to Ohio and Kentucky later in the week.

“One of the reasons we get out here is to look at the breadth and depth of the amazing things that agriculture does all across this country,” Perdue said. “I'm convinced more and more as I get around that the relationship between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our land-grant colleges is critical.

"The thing that I was most impressed about was that Michigan State University and its College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) is focused on food production, food quality and food safety from the producer's perspective. What that's created is a great, integrated relationship."

At MSU, Perdue and his team were hosted by Ron Hendrick, the dean of CANR.

“This was a tremendous opportunity for MSU to showcase its leading work on many of agriculture’s greatest challenges,” Hendrick said. “To have the secretary of agriculture on campus and to display our work on topics such as emerging plant diseases, animal welfare and technological innovation was a chance for him to see how vital agriculture is to our state — industries representing a $100 billion contribution to the Michigan economy.”

Perdue’s campus excursion began with breakfast at the MSU Conservatory, where he spoke with faculty and MSU stakeholders. The food served highlighted products from MSU’s Meat Laboratory, the Dairy Store and the Student Organic Farm.

After breakfast, laboratory tours commenced at the Plant and Soil Sciences Building with Vance Baird, the chair of the Department of Horticulture, discussing the lab of Erik Runkle, a professor in the department. Runkle heads the Controlled-Environment Lighting Laboratory, which conducts research on the production of high-value specialty food crops and ornamental plants in controlled spaces.

In the lab, Runkle and his graduate student, William Meng, have created vertical farming systems in which vertically stacked or inclined surfaces are exposed to LED lighting that can be adjusted to produce plants with desirable size, taste and nutritional characteristics. He believes indoor growing systems offer many benefits for specialty crops, especially considering the ability to produce them year-round without occupying already-stretched farmland resources.

Perdue then entered the lab of Mary Hausbeck, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. Hausbeck has spent the duration of her nearly three-decade MSU career in plant pathology and MSU Extension. She manages crop disease issues for Michigan’s vegetable and greenhouse ornamental industries, sharing her research findings with growers throughout the state.

Moving to animal agriculture, the group ventured to the Beef Cattle Teaching and Research Center, with Department of Animal Science Professor Jim Ireland conveying some of the challenges and new advancements in cattle fertility research. Ireland studies cattle reproduction and helps to train students through the Reproductive Developmental Sciences Program.

Bo Norby, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, discussed his work with bovine leukemia virus (BLV) — a retrovirus that weakens the immune system and can lead to further disease development in cattle.

Alongside Norby has been a team of MSU researchers, including Department of Animal Science Professor Paul Coussens and Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences Professor Paul Bartlett, as well as MSU Extension’s Phil Durst.

They have identified a growing number of BLV cases statewide, and Durst has met with producers to increase awareness of the disease and options for curbing its effects.

The final stop of the tour was the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education. There, Perdue saw how technology plays a critical role in MSU’s commitment to sustainable agricultural systems.

MSU Foundation Professor Bruno Basso, an expert in precision agriculture, provided a drone demonstration. Basso uses the unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor large fields and collect data on farms across the Midwest.

The drone is outfitted with three sensors that measure plant nutrients, temperature and size. Once collected, growers can use this information to determine appropriate management of their crops through more efficient application of water, fertilizer and other resources.

Perdue’s visit culminated with addressing faculty, staff, students and stakeholders. He spoke of the importance of preparing the next generation of professionals who will propel agriculture into the future.

“Agriculture is alive and well, and it's flourishing and thriving at places like MSU,” Perdue said. “Undergraduates and graduate students are getting a good, practical education in how to go out into the workplace and innovate, create, design and develop new products, procedures and processes that can help feed a growing world population."

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