Professor reaps agriculture prize, $50,000

by Joe Carlson

He is a scientist with much to brag about, but University Professor of Agronomy Don Rasmusson is humble about the extent his work in barley crop varieties has affected agriculture.
“Crop variety is only one of a half-dozen things that come into play in determining if a farmer has a good year,” Rasmusson said.
Despite his modesty, the barley industry estimates that almost 97 percent of the malting barley grown in the Midwest — barley grown to make beer and candy — comes from crop varieties developed at the University of Minnesota. Rasmusson has had a hand in developing the four popular varieties of malting barley, heading the Graduate Studies in Plant Breeding from 1968 to 1989.
Since Rasmusson began teaching and advising at the University in 1961, he has taught more than 650 students about advanced plant breeding.
For these contributions, Rasmusson received one of three Siehl Prizes for Excellence in Agriculture in a ceremony Thursday night at the Weisman Art Museum.
The four varieties of malting barley developed at the University have dominated Minnesota’s malting barley industry since the late 1970s.
There are two types of barley grown in Minnesota: malting and feed. Feed barley is used to nourish livestock of all kinds.
Rasmusson attributes the success of the University’s plant breeding program to a number of factors, including a strong research team and adequate funding.
Rasmusson said his upbringing contributed to his lifelong interest and pursuit of agricultural science.
“I was raised on a farm in Utah, and I have benefited from that in many respects,” Rasmusson said. He received his doctorate in genetics from the University of California in 1958.
About 100 spectators were present for the Siehl Prize ceremony Thursday in the museum.
“Truly this is a proud night for Minnesota agriculture,” state Commissioner of Agriculture Gene Hugoson said during a presentation speech.
Siehl Prizes are awarded biennially to three individuals who have made significant advances in agriculture.
The prizes are administered through the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences. The prizes are awarded for accomplishment in three areas: production agriculture, agribusiness, and academic contribution.
Production agriculture is the real-world application of scientific research and principles to farming.
Rasmusson received the academic award; former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland received the production agriculture award; Bailey Nurseries Inc. received the award for agribusiness.
“I am enormously proud to be here,” Bergland said. “Of all the things that have happened to me in my life, this tops the list.”
A three-person committee in the college is responsible for selecting the awards’ recipients.
Each recipient receives a cash award of $50,000 and an agriculturally themed sculpture.
The honor is named for Eldon R. Siehl, a Minnesota businessman with an interest in production agriculture. Siehl briefly attended the University.
He provided the endowment funds for the award shortly before his death in 1982.