FARGO, N.D. — A research alliance between North Dakota State University plant pathologists and the R.D. Offutt Farms of Fargo has worked for 25 years, helping to solve potato disease issues worldwide.
Participants say it’s an example of the power of research when private enterprise links with academia. The company provides some funding for some research dollars, solely, but also hosts research on their farms that is funded by others. The partnership offers access to current production problems that research can help solve and helps test tools for identifying and counteracting disease pests.
Julie Pasche is an NDSU associate professor and leads the research group as the Neil C. Gudmestad Endowed chair of potato pathology. Pasche has held the position for about two years but has been at NDSU for 25 years.
Gudmestad retired at NDSU in 2020 after serving on the staff since 1985. Gudmestad oversaw a program that developed into the largest potato pathology program under one person in the world. It had nine staff members and five graduate students. Gudmestad gained a worldwide reputation in potato diseases and helped establish NDSU’s first endowed chair in any field.
Pasche's long-time personnel associations and trust are valuable. The RDO partnership may account for about 15% to 20% of all of the research her potato plant pathology team conducts and hosts research funded by others.
The alliance helps sort out what solutions are able to be scaled up economically to solve problems.
“It’s not a slam dunk, and it’s not quick,” she said. “It’s a long-term investment from both parties’ parts.”
Deep, strong ties
The RDO/NDSU projects formally started with Minnesota trials in Browerville, at a partner farm, tackling soil-borne potato diseases including “pink rot” and “black dot.” Gudmestad and Pasche published their first scientific paper from the project in 1996, documenting a trial at an RDO farm. The partnership has produced nine more scientific journal entries and numerous articles in grower publications and presentations.
Nick David is the R.D. Offutt Farms Midwest regional agronomist, based in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
“One of the biggest values of having North Dakota State University researchers in our fields doing research is we get to work directly with the researchers when they’re interacting with their plots, evaluating them,” said David.
The researchers, meanwhile, have access to “real world production practices” and “overlay their treatments” in commercial fields, rather than trying to replicate situations in a greenhouse or a small plot scale.
The Midwest part of the company produces 35,000 to 40,000 acres of potatoes annually — primarily in Minnesota, with large acreages in North Dakota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. They generally rotate with other growers who grow the rotation crops.
RDO has Minnesota locations at Parkers Prairie, Brooten, Park Rapids, Perham/Ottertail, Wadena, Staples, Fort Ripley, Browerville, Becker and Hastings.
David said it was a recognition between NDSU and the company to “the information the scientists could provide to the production agricultural world benefitted both the scientists at the universities and also the production agriculture.”
David said the research projects provide benefits because they put their trials in “real world situations.” He said the dollar amount of the research the company provides is “stable” but varies, and declined to say how much.
“It’s not on a research farm where it may not get irrigated properly, it may not get fertilized properly. We’re overlaying these specific treatments within a potato field,” David said.
The alliance with NDSU gives the company a “seat at the table” to discuss the company’s issues with world class researchers and develop research programs that meet their needs.
Pasche said the project offers a “more sustainable food supply.” The company touts its environmentally friendly practices for a “great yield.”
NDSU disseminates the information at grower meetings and in trade journals.
RDO Farms is the world’s largest individual company-controlled potato grower. It is a sister company to RDO Equipment within R.D. Offutt Co.
“Part of the battle is finding out what doesn’t work,” said David, who has been with the company for 11 years. “Sometimes, research findings help us make changes to produce a more environmentally friendly and economically sustainable potato — and that’s our goal.”
These benefits could come in reducing nutrients or chemicals applied, using timing, crop rotation, or shifting to livestock manure nutrients.
Gudmestad first had contact with RDO in 1981, when RDO agronomist Dale Stevens started seeing signs of ring rot. Stevens hired Gudmestad to conduct some research on soil-borne diseases.
In 1986 and 1987, NDSU studied when to apply protectants against pink rot, which can affect yield. By sponsoring the research, RDO is the “original company to have the benefit” of the findings, but results are shared “nationally and internationally.”
Some of the research led RDO to grow in-house seed to control the health of the commercial product, as well as the best soil temperature to apply fungicides to prevent verticillium wilt.
NDSU potato plant pathology research also gets funding support from the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association and Minnesota Area II Potato Growers Council. Besides Pasche, other work in the program is done by Gary Secor, Andy Robinson, Susie Thompson, and up to a dozen students.
David said RDO also partners with the University of Minnesota, which spearheads a Potato Soil Health Project, and with Montana State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Maine, and Washington State University.
Gudemestad earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from NDSU in 1978 and 1982, respectively. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and helped gather funding for the endowed post. With the cancer in remission, he retired in 2020 and continues to live in Fargo and consults with RDO and numerous producers around the nation and world.
The Gudmestad endowed chair was established by a $4.2 million fund drive from 40 donors in 13 states. The Challenge Fund increased the endowment to $6.3 million.
Among the NDSU/RDO research topics, locations and researchers are:
Nitrogen efficiency with new potato variety (RDO Perham Farm – Robinson).
Planting date in relation to Verticillium wilt studies (RDO Park Rapids, Perham Farms – Pasche and Robinson).
Verticillium wilt resistance screening (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Thompson).
Turkey manure effectiveness alone and with ESN on tuber yield (RDO Perham Farm – Robinson).
Polymer coated ammonium sulfate (RDO Perham Farm – Robinson).
Calcium application (RDO Perham Farm – Robinson).
Weed control study for most effective herbicide, increase in yield (RDO Wadena Farm – Robinson).
Seed lot trials for growers (RDO Park Rapids, Becker Farms – Robinson).
Late blight spore detection (throughout MN and ND RDO Farms – Robinson and Pasche).
Frozen processing trial (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Thompson).
Common scab resistance screening (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Thompson).
Pink rot management (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Pasche).
Vine kill timing for Verticillium wilt management (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Pasche).
Verticillium wilt management – chemical and biological products (RDO Park Rapids Farm – Pasche).