Weed science specialist Fred Yelverton’s sphere of influence spans the globe but is most felt at home in North Carolina.
When it comes to its turfgrass program, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ faculty is among the nation’s most highly regarded. Yet even within that elite faculty, there are standouts, and Dr. Fred Yelverton is certainly among them.
An expert in solving weed problems in lawns, along roadsides, among forage grasses and on athletic fields and golf courses, Yelverton has been named by the magazine publishing company Green Media as one of the 20 most influential people in the green industry.
In North Carolina, this sort of clout is massive, because the industry is a big part of the state’s economy, encompassing nursery, greenhouse, Christmas tree and turfgrass industries. Taken together, these industries have an estimated economic impact of $8.6 billion annually. Also within the green industry, turfgrass is especially significant because it covers 2.2 million acres in the state – more than any agricultural crop.
Yelverton’s importance to the industry derives in part from the fact that he’s very much a utility player: A professor in the Department of Crop Science, he not only teaches classes, mentors students and conducts research, he works directly with green industry professionals and with agricultural agents statewide as a specialist with North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
If that weren’t enough, Yelverton also co-directs, along with fellow crop scientist Dr. Tom Rufty and entomologist Rick Brandenburg, the College’s Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education.
CENTERE, as it’s come to be known, was set up 10 years ago with funding from the N.C. General Assembly to explore how water quality is affected by pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals used to make lawns, golf-course greens, athletic fields and other grassy areas healthy. CENTERE scientists also develop new methods to manage insects, weeds and diseases in ways that enhance the environment.
Yelverton focuses on weed management, biology and ecology in turfgrass, as well as on plant growth regulator use in turfgrass. His goal: to help green industry pros manage weeds and turfgrasses in ways that are environmentally sound and economically viable.
“I continue to see my role … as someone who can help the green industry effectively manage weeds with no adverse environmental consequences,” he told Arbor Age magazine. “In essence, I see my role as helping turfgrass managers with tools that help them be more successful.”
Judging by the state and national awards he’s won – not to mention the many times he’s been asked to serve on advisory boards related to environmental stewardship, lawns and landscapes and more – Yelverton is doing just that.
In recent years, he’s helped the N.C. Department of Transportation come up with ways to reduce mowing costs by $6 million a year and yet keep down weeds so that guardrails, signs and oncoming traffic are visible. “Reducing sight impairments on roadsides reduces accidents and saves lives,” Yelverton points out. And decreased mowing is also good for the environment, because it means less use of fossil fuels.
The scientist has also helped countless superintendents resolve weed problems that affect what he calls “playability issues” on their golf courses. That, he says, aids tourism and the economy, because North Carolina hosts some of the nation’s major golf tournaments, and it ranks among the top 10 states in number of courses.
Yelverton also routinely advises managers of athletic fields used by everyone from little leaguers to college players to pros. “In sports fields, weeds are a big deal because you need a very uniform playing surface,” he notes. “If there’s a lump of something out there, a player can get really hurt.”
While Yelverton’s influence is perhaps deepest in North Carolina, it spans the globe: He has a current research project in Australia related to making roads safer through better roadside weed management. Last fall he taught seminars there and in Singapore and South Korea.
Over the years, his work has taken him across the United States and to six continents. He believes those travels not only have made him a better researcher and Extension expert by exposing him to new ideas and different weed management strategies, they have also made him a better teacher.
“You’re able to bring these different perspectives to the classroom,” he says. “The more experience – and the broader experience – you can bring to your students, the more that helps them professionally and personally.”
Working with students, Yelverton says, is the most rewarding aspect of his work. He hopes to have the kind of influence on their lives that the retired N.C. State professor Dr. Harold Coble had on his.
At the same time, Yelverton strives with his 12-year-old son to instill some of the same values that his parents conveyed to him. His father – a farmer in eastern North Carolina – taught him the importance of hard work, he says, while his mother, a school teacher, stressed the importance of education.
He carried those values with him when he began studying at N.C. State University as an undergraduate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After transferring from East Carolina University, Yelverton earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology in 1981, then decided he would get back to his farming roots by pursuing a master’s degree in crop science with a concentration in weed science.
After getting his M.S. in 1984, Yelverton went to work as an agricultural Extension agent back home in Wilson County. He was appointed as an Extension tobacco specialist in 1986, and that same year he started work toward a Ph.D. The next four years were difficult – “hell,” as he puts it – as he essentially juggled the two full-time jobs of specialist and student. “I’m glad I did it now,” he says. “But it was not easy. And I have a hard time recommending it to others.”
When Yelverton finished up the Ph.D. work in 1990, he was assigned to find ways to reduce residues of the plant growth regulator maleic hydrazide on tobacco so that American tobacco could continue to be sold in Europe, where MH levels were restricted. Through a combined research and Extension effort, he identified other ways to control yield-reducing suckers, and he worked with agents to help farmers adopt those methods.
In 1995, Yelverton’s career shifted from tobacco to turfgrass when he took the tenure-track position he now holds. Today, he says he’s happy to have made the shift – and others, including the peers who nominated him for the “Most Influential” distinction – are also glad he did.
Over the years, Yelverton has approached his work with a passion that extends to his family and to his hobbies. He’s an avid sports fisherman, golfer, cyclist and runner who’s completed a marathon. He works out every day, and he deliberately carves out time to spend with his wife of 26 years and his son.
It’s all part of a personal philosophy that’s summed up on the screen saver on his Williams Hall office computer: “No excuses.” And by “no excuses,” Yelverton literally means no excuses.
And not even having two kinds of cancer at once.
Two years ago, at the age of 49, Yelverton was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer and with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. His doctors told Yelverton that the CLL is not life-threatening, but the type of prostate cancer he has is especially dangerous. He’s been through grueling radiation treatments, takes medication and sees his doctors frequently.
But he hasn’t let his medical condition slow him down.
“It would be easy to say, ‘I don’t want to run today’ or ‘I won’t go to work today because I have cancer.’ But you’ve got to get on with your life. You’ve got to move forward,” Yelverton says.
Yelverton’s determination to beat the cancer is bolstered by a positive outlook and the support of family and friends, including those from the campus running group affectionately known as the Road Scholars.
“They have been … an inspiration, and they help me combat my disease by keeping me active in running,” he says. “They sometimes joke, ‘Come on, Fred, it’s time for your treatment.’ They have helped me immensely – both physically and mentally.”
Yelverton also takes inspiration from cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong:
“Lance Armstrong once said, ‘The day I was diagnosed with cancer was the day I started to live.’ I believe there’s a lot of truth to that,” Yelverton remarks. “Having cancer can be a life-enriching thing. It has been for me. It helps you think about what’s important in life. For me, it’s family, friends and colleagues.
“It also makes you appreciate things more. And I have to say that I really appreciate my job and the opportunity N.C. State has given me to help students and to help other people.
“If there’s a better job out there, I couldn’t point to it.”