PSI Profile: Chris Reberg-Horton, Platform Director for Resilient Agricultural Systems

Man leaning against a fence post, with grain bins in the background.

For Chris Reberg-Horton, success of the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative comes down to the faculty. As the initiative’s first platform director for resilient agricultural systems, his goal is to provide logistical support to help his faculty colleagues make the connections they need to address big issues in agriculture.

Reberg-Horton, a professor of organic cropping systems in NC State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, was involved in shaping the initiative as part of the Food Systems, Environmental Sustainability and Resilience Platform Sub Task Force. His career focus has been on helping agriculture become resilient in the face of tremendous change.

Reberg-Horton is known for his work with a nationwide research network, called Precision Sustainable Agriculture, focused on using low-cost, cutting-edge technology and machine learning to enhance sustainable agricultural practices.

He serves as assistant director of collaborative research for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a partnership of NC State, North Carolina A&T State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In 2019, he received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in support of this research.

Reberg-Horton comes from Fairview, a small town in the North Carolina mountains. He holds an undergraduate degree in environmental sciences from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; a master’s in agronomy from the University of California, Davis; and a doctorate in horticultural science from NC State.

He has done extension work in California and North Carolina and was on the faculty at the University of Maine before returning to NC State in 2006 to serve in the crop and soil sciences department.

He recently shared his thoughts on NC State, the plant sciences initiative and his goals as a platform director.

How do you see the platform director position for resilient agricultural systems?

With climate change already impacting farms and the increasing pace of technological change such as artificial intelligence and robotics becoming realities in agriculture, I think the times we’re living in are going to be no less revolutionary than the Green Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. This generation’s overwhelming need is to build more resiliency to climate change and to make the most of the incredible technological innovation that’s occurring.  That’s the focus of the PSI platform of resilient agricultural systems.

As a platform lead, I see my role as a facilitator. Faculty are the ones who are going to drive the initiative’s success. The platform directors are there to support their work by helping them make connections with others and to the resources they need to succeed. Saying “we want the faculty to be interdisciplinary, but you’re on your own” doesn’t cut it. With the PSI, what we’re saying is, “We’ve got your back.”

What are your goals for the position?

Simple metrics are the ones I like, and if I had a simple metric to measure success in this position, it would be that my colleagues in agriculture would personally know and be working effectively with faculty in other colleges on campus to address challenges in agriculture.

If you ask people, “How many people in other colleges do you know that you can call on the phone and say, ‘There’s a grant coming in. You want to hit this together?’” you’d find that that’s not happening as often as we’d like. And that’s what the PSI is here to solve.

Real stars are scattered all over our campus, and expertise can be hidden in unexpected places. I’ll give you an example, I do a lot with small devices and the Internet of Things, and through the PSI, I found somebody with incredible experience in the College of Textiles. It never would have dawned on me to even look over there.

What do you love about being at NC State?

At NC State, our biggest advantage is that we aren’t territorial. When you do pick up the phone and call somebody cold to see if they are interested in sharing their expertise, it tends to go very well. I’ve been meeting all these new people in the last couple years, and they’ve been warm and receptive. Interdisciplinarity works in our culture here better than it does on other campuses, and that atmosphere makes it possible for the PSI to work here, as well.

What are the great challenges facing agriculture?

I mentioned the ability to adapt to a changing climate and a changing technological world being number one.  Another challenge is the change in what consumers want out of agriculture. I think the conception of the land-grant system for a very long time has been that people simply want food. But what we are seeing now is that it’s more complicated. People are asking for a lot more. They’re asking for sustainability. They want to see agriculture producing food, but they also want it to serve environmental objectives at the same time.

A lot of people in the public and private sectors are figuring out how to do that, and NC State can play a huge role. It’ll take big data. It’ll take tracking things throughout the supply chain if we’re going to make environmental claims about farming systems. It’s going to take plant improvement. And it’ll take finding the right mix of crops to produce our food in the most environmentally friendly way. Rising to that challenge is going to take all the PSI platforms.

Do you have a favorite plant?

As a mountain boy, I’ll have to say it’s the mountain laurel. I miss mountain laurels down here. My wife is a landscaper, and her company is called Kalmia Landscape Design, after the scientific name for mountain laurel.

Is there anything else you wanted to share?

There’s no such thing as an initiative that isn’t faculty led, and so the success or failure of the Plant Sciences Initiative will depend on the faculty. I want to encourage everybody with an interest to get engaged and to help make the initiative their own. It feels a little bit like the Kennedy speech: Don’t ask what it is; come and help make it what it’s going to be.

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.