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Endowed chair established to continue potato pathology research

The odds are good Neil Gudmestad had a hand in getting your helping of potatoes to the dinner table. The longtime NDSU potato pathologist is one of the foremost disease researchers for the world’s fourth-most-consumed food crop. 

But with retirement in view – Gudmestad announced his plans to step down by 2019 – he wanted to make sure his research program remained in place. The potato growers and companies he’s worked with for more than 30 years felt the same way—so much so they quickly raised funds to establish what will be NDSU’s first fully endowed chair, which means Gudmestad’s position and research program is funded permanently through an endowment.

Gudmestad, MS ’78, Ph.D., ’82, plant pathology, has made potato disease research his life’s work. It began as an NDSU graduate student when a faculty member asked him to move from studying barley to managing a potato field research program. Gudmestad joined the NDSU faculty after a short stint certifying seed potatoes for the state seed department while earning a doctoral degree.

His program is primarily focused on the biology of potato pathogens and the management of diseases they cause. The program has nine staff members and five graduate students in the lab and field.

However, similar programs and positions at universities across the U.S. have been eliminated or gone unfilled as domestic potato acreage has fallen to less than 1 million acres per year. Despite the loss in acres, potato remains the leading vegetable crop in the U.S.

With his pending retirement in mind, Gudmestad began writing a proposal that would establish the endowed chair. His proposal gained momentum with the North Dakota legislature’s approval of the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge Fund, which lists the creation of endowed chair positions as a way to enhance academic programs.

Gudmestad originally intended the position to be named the U.S. Potato Industry Endowed Chair, but supporters behind the scenes changed it to the Neil C. Gudmestad Endowed Chair.

“The role of this endowment is to have a successor who has a lot of experience in potato disease research and not only be able to carry on my project but carry it to greater heights,” Gudmestad said.

A funding drive raised $4.2 million from 40 donors in 13 states. The Challenge Fund increased the endowment to $6.3 million, and additional industry fundraising continues.

"Dr. Gudmestad is one of our finest faculty members," said NDSU President Dean L. Bresciani. "His research contributions have been felt around the globe, and the respect he has earned among potato producers is truly remarkable. That respect is evident in the heartfelt and generous support of NDSU's effort to establish the Neil C. Gudmestad Endowed Chair."

A nine-member consultation committee will be formed this year to guide disease research and to assist NDSU to identify and attract a successor. Gudmestad anticipates the endowment will be used to purchase equipment and attract top graduate students to conduct research on new diseases.

Gudmestad and his team often are called upon to conduct new potato disease research. For example, he and Gary Secor, NDSU professor of plant pathology, began studying zebra chip at NDSU in 2005 two years before its discovery in the U.S. Zebra chip is caused by a bacterium that causes an aesthetically unpleasing look and bitter taste in cooked potatoes. It is spread by the potato psyllid insect.

Gudmestad served as co-director of the multi-institution Zebra Chip Leadership Team, which received the Partnership Award by Texas A&M AgriLife for its efforts. Their work also garnered honors from the Entomological Society of America and USDA-NIFA, which awarded them the NIFA Partnership Award for Mission Integration of Research, Education and Extension, the highest honor that organization can bestow.

Support for the endowment has come from across the country. Gregg Halverson, BS ’71, animal science, is president of Grand Forks, North Dakota-based Black Gold Farms Inc. He helped rally industry support for the fund.

“Dr. Gudmestad is recognized as one of the leading potato pathologists in the world, and it is my hope this endowed chair will provide a vehicle that will allow that sort of world-class excellence to continue,” Halverson said. “I am proud to call Neil a friend and on behalf of Black Gold Farms, as well as our entire industry around the world, I would like to thank him for his help navigating the biological twists and turns that have occurred within our industry. As our industry continues to change, the intellectual capital the Neil C. Gudmestad Endowed Chair represents will help serve the potato production business positively for generations.”

Third-generation potato farmer Ron Offutt also helped galvanize industry support for the fund. Offutt is founder and chairman emeritus of Fargo-based R.D. Offutt Co. It’s the largest potato grower in the U.S.

“It was very easy for me to support the endowment established for Neil Gudmestad as he is highly recognized both nationally and internationally as being one of the best experts in his field of plant pathology,” Offutt said. “Neil has provided extraordinary consulting services to our R.D. Offutt Co. team of agronomists, partners and farm managers since the mid-80s. He is ‘the authority’ on potato diseases and their management and it is with great enthusiasm and respect for Neil, to support the continuation of his research that is so very important to growers and the potato industry as a whole.”

Gudmestad, one of NDSU’s inaugural University Distinguished Professors, was honored in January at Potato Expo, the largest conference and trade show for the potato industry held in North America. Many of the endowment donors were in attendance.

“It’s gratifying,” Gudmestad said. “To think an industry would, in a relatively short period of time, rally and become galvanized across numerous states and stakeholders to provide for my program to survive – it’s humbling.”

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