A look at Rutgers University Department of Agriculture’s impact

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

South Jersey’s Adam Lotfi is cultivating his passion for sustainable agriculture and teaching at Rutgers University’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“There’s so much untapped potential in people. And some people don’t know they have a love for something until they have the right teacher for it. That’s what happened to me. When you have somebody that just kind of jibes with the teacher they have a store of knowledge that just comes out and the creativity is endless,” Loft said.

“I’m close enough to the situation to see these young men and women prosper and grow,” said Robert Goodman, executive dean of the Department of Agricultural and Natural Resources at Rutgers University.

Like Lotfi, they grow in the Rutgers sustainable garden where Goodman says students train without pesticides — planting seeds of vegetation and a viable future. The department is rooted in its 1860s land grant founding and mission of educating the public. It gave birth to two other school’s here engineering and biological sciences.

Today, the school does a whole range of things, and the jump in undergraduate enrollment might signal that.

“That’s a significant tick up in the past year,” Goodman said. “There’s a lot more interest in the environment and in climate and in food and in fisheries. We are a fishing state.”

The school’s breeding program is legendary for restoring the oyster industry, and for making fruits and vegetables hardier and more resistant to environmental risks.

“We are also a leader bringing out new crops. So we have new disease-resistant herbs and greens,” said Goodman.

Its turf program spreads across huge acres on campus. Its researched products grace the White House lawn and Yankee Stadium. The dean credits Rutgers early scientists.

“One of the things that they did, is what all good plant breeders did if they could afford it and ours did, is to go out in to the world: to Kazakhstan to the Ural Steppes, for example, where many of our turf grass species originate and collect material at the source. Material at sources of origin like these places for the turf grass species, they’re almost a gene bank for resistances,” Goodman said.

“All the time, and we collaborate with the private sector. By the private sector I mean farmers, growers, producers,” said Goodman when asked if there is interest from private companies for help. “Governments, state, absolutely, federal government. Internationally.”

Among the agriculture department’s international outreach, a $27 million donation is helping the school lead a project in Greece.

“To help address workforce development for youth in the agriculture and food sector of Greece, which many people will know has had its problems over the last decade,” Goodman said.

Closer to home, Rutgers 104-year-old Cooperative Extension of New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station is embedded in 20 of the state’s 21 counties. For decades, the extensions of the university focused on helping farmers — offering science-based research to countless questions that cropped up.

“We are built for change,” said Brian Schilling, director of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

The change reflects what’s happening in society.

“Now what we have is programs, for example, for master gardeners. Acknowledging that our state has become more urban and suburbanized, it’s not just traditional agriculture clientele that need help, but maybe an urban or suburban landowner that wants to know how to best manage their garden, or identify and control a pest. Or maybe how to remediate lead in soil in an urban environment,” said Schilling. “We are not limited by what our individual expertise is. So, for example, we have colleagues across the region, across the state, across the nation with whom we interact. Cooperative extension is a national partnership between federal government, the USDA, state governments, and county governments and the land grant universities. So we are a network that expands nationally. So, if need expertise in a given area, we can go through our network to get you the answers you need. The only thing that you can count as typical or expected is that you’re going to be hit with some question that you could have never anticipated.”

Schilling says there’s an answer out there and the Cooperative Extension will find it.