Cathy Herring has played a key role in some of the greatest advances in agriculture, helping thousands of experiments—and research careers—slowly progress and take shape on a daily basis. Now, after nearly 40 years of service to NC State’s researchers, Herring says it’s time to step away and give others a chance to take over her unique role.
Herring will retire on March 31 after working with the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service for nearly four decades, beginning in 1982 as a student worker to pay for her B.S. in agronomy and eventually graduating to research station superintendent.
As the superintendent at the Central Crops Research Station in Clayton since 2012—and the assistant superintendent since 2003, Herring admits she has seen a lot of interesting work come to her station’s fields.
“There were thousands of research projects over 36 years with a lot of different focuses,” said Herring. “The fun part of it: You have an opportunity to work on things that are just coming out, and you can see how things will benefit growers early on.”
Herring recalled some of her more exciting days on the job, many of which involved the research she and her staff had helped manage in field plots for principal investigators.
“It’s very fulfilling to see numbered compounds eventually becoming herbicides and insecticides that will have a great impact on farmers,” Herring said. “My family farmed, so it’s easy to see the potential impact for producers and how it will help them.”
Herring’s most exciting day, however, had little to do directly with research. It was the day the Central Crops Research Station officially expanded from 483 to 523 acres in 2020.
“We were renting 40 acres of property adjacent to our fields for 40 years. The day we managed to get it purchased as permanently part of the research station—the day we found out it was a done deal, knowing we had it, that was a great day.”
An accomplished steward
Colleagues and fellow leaders at the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (NCARS) describe Herring as dedicated, accomplished, and invaluable.
“Cathy spent a long career dedicated to agricultural research that supported North Carolina’s number one industry,” said Loren Fisher, assistant director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (NCARS). “Her contributions to the success of agricultural research in this state are beyond measure, and her leadership and ‘can do’ approach in the entire research station system has been exceptional and clearly commendable.”
Though Herring has been recognized as an accomplished leader, she avoids claiming the Central Crops Research Station’s accomplishments as her own, despite all the beneficial research projects she has stewarded over the decades.
“There are a lot of things I’ve helped with, but the scientists are the ones doing the research. You’re just helping to make it happen,” Herring said. “Our accomplishments come from the researchers and the research station staff working together to host good, quality, repeatable research that gets disseminated out to the producers. This is something you do as a team.”
Forty years of growth
Herring began supporting NC State’s agricultural researchers in 1982, working part time to help pay her way through school as a full-time undergraduate agronomy student. She grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina and originally intended to continue farming. But by the time she graduated from high school, the agricultural economy had taken a hard turn.
“We knew then that farming would not support three households, for my parents, my brother and me,” Herring said. My brother was working on the farm full time, so I had the opportunity to go to school, learn, and get a job. I knew I wanted to stay in agriculture, because I love it.”
Herring first worked in the soil lab of Bill Jackson, a soil scientist and distinguished professor known for his research on nutrient uptake in plants.
“We did some cool stuff, and he really got me interested in research,” Herring said. “He put radioactive isotopes in plants to track the movement of plant nutrients. In the beginning, I was there to clean up. But after working with him for a while, I had the opportunity to work on his experiments.”
When Herring graduated in 1983, she took a part-time, then full-time position with Eugene Kamprath, another distinguished professor, in his soil fertility lab, where she helped collect soil samples for a long-term soil fertility project focused on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
In April 1985, Herring took her first permanent position with Robert H. Moll, a corn geneticist, working on a long-term project on the uptake and utilization of nitrogen, as well as a project on corn prolificacy.
“I worked there until the fall of ‘93. The research project had been running almost 20 years by then. You really didn’t want to mess up his samples,” Herring said.
Her first job at a North Carolina research station started in 1993 at the Sandhills Research Station in Jackson Springs as a farm manager, where she helped steward various research projects on field plots for crops such as soybeans, apples, nectarines, peaches, and blueberries.
She began the first of her 26 years at the Central Crops Research Station in 1995 as a field crops supervisor. There she looked after the plant breeding nurseries, planned the crop rotations, designed fertilizer regimes, and identified pests and control measures for the field crops unit.
“Moving to the Central Crops Research Station allowed me to work more in the field crops side, which was more relatable to my family and friends’ farms,” Herring said. “But going to Sandhills was a great experience. It allowed me to learn something different.”
After eight years as a field crops supervisor, she advanced to assistant superintendent, a position she held for eight more years before becoming superintendent in 2012. Herring says these positions allowed her to make more of a difference in the research and connect with colleagues more broadly across the research station.
“When I became assistant superintendent, it gave me more chances to interact with the other units outside of field crops, like the horticultural and swine units,” Herring said. “As a unit manager, you’re more involved with the planning for research projects. As superintendent, you have to look at how it affects the entire station.”
Herring also enjoyed watching the researchers grow their careers.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really good scientists,” Herring said. “I saw some of them start as grad students and go on to be nationally and world-renowned professors. Some of them end up being your boss along the way. That’s okay too. You know you don’t have a big part in that, but it sure is fun to watch them be successful.”
Grounded by family
Herring credits her successes to her parents, who shaped her work ethic, her sense of responsibility, her love for farming and agriculture, and her career path.
“We made a family decision that, with the way agriculture was changing, someone needed to get an education,” Herring said. “It was an easy decision for me to go into research, and we all valued what I did. My father and brother would occasionally come to me with questions about their crops. I could help the family while doing the work I wanted to do.”
Herring says she hopes to be remembered by her NC State family for being supportive of research and making research projects move smoothly.
“During her decades with NC State, Cathy has been involved with thousands of projects that have benefitted millions of growers throughout our state, nation, and world,” said Steve Lommel, Director of North Carolina Agricultural Research Service and Associate Dean for Research at CALS. “We truly appreciate all the time, energy, and care she has put into her work.” Herring’s colleagues will hold a Zoom-based retirement party on Thursday, March 25th at 4 p.m. All are welcome to attend. Please register beforehand to join the celebration.
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.