PANHANDLE PERSPECTIVES: In more than 50 years, two Extension plant pathologists have been stationed in Scottsbluff

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist
Panhandle R&E Center, Scottsbluff

The Panhandle Research and Extension Center (REC) was begun in 1910 with the establishment of the Scotts Bluff Experimental Substation.

Although the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) was not formally established until 1920, a decade later, plant pathology had a significant presence in western Nebraska even before the Substation in Scottsbluff was created.

Potato production was actually the first subject of plant disease studies in western Nebraska. In the summer of 1909 (a year earlier than the formal establishment of the experimental substation) a potato disease lab was set up in Alliance with the help of special legislative funds to study diseases of potatoes.  Work on root diseases caused by Fusarium spp. were targeted first, resulting in the publication of the first Research Bulletin of the Experiment Station entitled “A Dry rot of the Irish Potato Tuber,” published in March 1913. 

Plant pathology increases

When the UNL Department of Plant Pathology was initiated in 1920, only two faculty members were on staff – George Peltier and Robert Goss. Goss began studies on other root diseases in potatoes as well as some of the first work in the United States on plant viruses. At that time the director of the Scotts Bluff substation had no interest in collaborating with UNL personnel, so Goss continued his investigations in western Nebraska in association with the station in Alliance.

But collaborative work among the Substation and UNL personnel increased greatly after 1935, with the hiring of Lionel Harris as director of the Scotts Bluff Substation. As this relationship improved, the department of plant pathology developed and maintained a full-time position for conducting research studies at the Substation during the summers for more than 15 years (1944-60). This assignment was given to Max Schuster after his arrival at UNL in 1946.

Extension Plant Pathology Expands Further

Extension plant pathology formally began in Nebraska in 1938 with Jesse Livingston and continued with Arden Sherf until 1949. However, it was only on a half-time basis. In 1950, John Weihing was hired as the first full-time Extension Plant Pathologist in Nebraska. Until about 1964, he was the ONLY pathologist assigned to serve the entire state and all of its diverse field and horticultural crops under highly variable environmental conditions.

Although David Wysong was hired in 1964 to lighten Weihing’s load, it became evident that additional plant pathology specialists were needed to properly serve the diverse agricultural systems in Nebraska.

Extension Plant Pathology in Western Nebraska

As a result of a committee established in 1965 to evaluate current and future research and extension needs in western Nebraska, the number one recommended priority for new specialist positions in the Panhandle was a plant pathologist. Thus, a new position was created in 1967 and filled by Eric Kerr as the first full-time extension plant pathologist at the Panhandle REC.

Kerr came to Scottsbluff after receiving a Ph.D. from UNL working on nematode diseases in wheat under the supervision of Max Schuster. His appointment was initially 100 percent extension, but was modified in 1980 to 50 percent each for both extension and research. Kerr’s research focused on nematode studies in corn and sugar beets as well designing a forecasting system for timing of fungicide applications for managing Cercospora leaf spot of sugar beets with Extension Climatologist Albert Weiss.

Kerr retired in 1998 and Bob Harveson was hired in July 1999 as extension plant pathology specialist stationed at the Panhandle Center. Harveson had a Ph.D. from the University of Florida, where he studied the biological control of Fusarium wilt diseases of tomatoes and watermelons utilizing several unique fungi as parasites for the pathogens of these diseases.

Harveson’s appointment is 50 percent research and 50 percent extension, with programming responsibility for specialty crops and a research emphasis on sugar beet root rots, bacterial diseases of dry-edible beans, and sunflower diseases.

He has extensively employed field disease surveys and disease diagnostics to establish needs for research and extension programming. The diagnostic lab at Scottsbluff has processed more than 27,000 total (plant and soil) samples since 2000 for disease identification, which has assisted in gathering the preliminary data needed for determining areas in need of research.

The University of Nebraska has always stressed the importance of Extension in fulfilling the mission of the University and serving the people of the state, and it is remarkable that for the last 52 years only two individuals have served western Nebraska as permanent extension plant pathologists stationed in Scottsbluff.