In a milestone year, Bob Patterson reflects on the differences made by the land-grants through ag education — yesterday, today and tomorrow
When Dr. Bob Patterson came to then N.C. State College in Raleigh as an undergraduate student in 1957, he was amazed to find a place that was addressing the problems that “kept farmers awake at night” in his home north of Hickory.
Except for a brief stint of doctoral work at Cornell University, Patterson has remained at N.C. State University, where he is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Crop Science. One of the most beloved professors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Patterson has now taught generations of State students.
It’s not unusual for Patterson’s students say, “Dad said to tell you ‘hello.’” And he’s not sure how he’ll react when they say, “My granddad said… .”
Patterson, whose teaching has received multitudes of accolades, continues to see how the work of the College is giving today’s students – especially those who want to return to their family farms – choices that earlier generations didn’t have. Recently, he sat down to reflect on how he saw N.C. State from his earliest days as a student and how he sees the land-grant university’s future.
Bob Patterson grew up on a small dairy farm in northwestern Catawba County, where cows were milked by hand. He never saw a milking parlor until he came to N.C. State as a freshman and started work at the University Research Dairy – where Wolf Village is today — to earn money for tuition. Milking started at 6 a.m., so Patterson had to arrive at the campus farm every other day by 5:30 a.m.
But some of his most valuable agriculture lessons took place before he came to N.C. State. Back home, he would often listen as local Catawba farmers gathered weeknights at Mr. Hutto’s store, and he still recalls two specific problems they talked about.The first was a problem that his father had mentioned to him – that “Flit,” a pesticide used to keep flies away from the dairy herd, didn’t seem to work any longer.
The second problem involved the wild onions and garlic in pastures that prevented his mother from selling hand-churned butter in the spring. The foul taste that onions and garlic produced in milk from cows that grazed in the pastures made it necessary to feed the milk to hogs during the times those weeds were in the pastures.
“So I wondered, what can we do about the flies, and what can we do about the onions and the garlic?” Patterson said.
“That curiosity about how to deal with the kind of problems that were so common on the farm, that curiosity was with me when I arrived at N.C. State,” he said. “And it was the most wonderful feeling to know that I had arrived at a place where my questions could be answered.”
As a student, Patterson saw the research, teaching and extension branches of the College working to address farmers’ problems. He had every intention of absorbing knowledge as an agronomy student and returning to his family farm. But when his mother called to say the family had to sell the farm, he realized that he had to take his studies more seriously.
Through his journey from student to faculty member, Patterson saw agricultural practices change and saw his land-grant colleagues at both N.C. State and Cornell finding new and better ways to address farmers’ problems.
When Patterson was a student at State, the College’s Agronomy Club sponsored seven educational booths at the nearby State Fair. At the time, farmers came to the fair to learn, and one year Patterson’s booth had an important and timely message: Now is the time to treat alfalfa to control the alfalfa weevil.
Heptachlor was the preferred pesticide for controlling the alfalfa weevil, and it was most effective at a specific time during the growing season and in the life cycle of the weevil. It happened that the proper week for using Heptachlor coincided that year with the fair.
The pastures and forages subcommittee developed a stellar exhibit, with containers of alfalfa plants and Heptachlor, and a jar of weevils. Elvis Presley’s hit, “It’s Now or Never,” played in the background. The group won the blue ribbon for their exhibit in the fall of 1960.
Five years later while studying at Cornell, Patterson saw a newspaper headline that read, “Heptachlor Banned.” Researchers had discovered that the chemical could be passed from pregnant mothers to fetuses. When he returned to N.C. State as a faculty member, Patterson learned that his research colleagues were focusing on alternatives to chlorinated hydrocarbons like Heptachlor, newer and safer pesticides that would remain toxic for much shorter periods of time.
“I was so relieved to know that my colleagues on this campus were at the vanguard of doing the research that enabled us to say we will no longer use chlorinated hydrocarbons in areas where there is human activity,” Patterson said. “What I learned as a graduate student and as a member of the faculty early in my career is just how dedicated we are at N.C. State to identifying and using resources to address the kinds of problems that kept farmers awake at night.”
Patterson returned to N.C. State in 1968 with a research and teaching appointment. Though he never worked for Cooperative Extension, he understood the role of Extension in bringing knowledge to farmers. He made a point of riding with N.C. State Extension specialists who worked with crops that he focused on in his crop sciences classes. Some of Patterson’s students have gone on to work for Cooperative Extension or in other roles that support farmers. One student he recalls is Wayne Nixon of Bagley Swamp in Perquimans County. At the time, Nixon came from the only farm family Patterson knew that didn’t have to borrow money to plant crops for the coming season.
Wayne Nixon told Patterson that he wanted to earn his master’s degree so he could serve the farmers in his part of the state. Nixon imagined starting a lab on his own family farm where he could address farmers’ problems. He started out with Cooperative Extension, and later decided to take a job as a state agronomist. Patterson said that today Nixon remains a respected adviser to farmers in the northeastern part of the state.
He recalls students who wanted to leave the farm because farming left no time for other things in life. He talks of farmers whose operations became so large, they could only practice “windshield farming” – observing their fields through the windshield of their truck, rather than walking the fields. And he remembers heart-breaking stories of farmers who were “one crop away from the poor house.”
The work of N.C. State and other land-grant colleges has made farm life easier by giving farmers choices, Patterson said.
“The fact that we have given farmers more options, more choices, regarding how to manage their total farm resources has empowered our farmers to think in ways they could not have allowed themselves to think in an earlier time and to sleep at night,” he said.
Students in Patterson’s World Population and Food Prospects undergraduate course and his Global Sustainable Human Development graduate seminar learn well the lessons of world food production. As the world prepares for a projected population of 9 billion by the year 2050, Patterson’s students grapple with questions of how to increase food production on diminishing farmland.
For these classes, the answer may be as simple as, “Think globally. Act locally.” Patterson sees hope for agriculture’s future in efforts to produce organic grains in North Carolina to foster a growing market for niche and organic meats. He is pleased that students see value in being “locovores,” eating more food produced locally. He sees hope in the movement to create community gardens and to involve young people in planting, managing, harvesting and cooking the food they grow.
Patterson encourages his students to get to know international students in N.C. State’s diverse student body. He suggests that they join a club outside their discipline – find out what Engineers Without Borders are up to and how their agricultural background could help engineers develop projects to help people.
“We have a responsibility to connect with other disciplines toward the goal of finding out what we do have in common,” he said. “My job is to encourage our students to think about the value of interacting with other students.”
Each spring after N.C. State’s graduation, Patterson heads for Prague, Czech Republic, where he teaches World Population and Food for six weeks. This summer when he returns to campus, he says he needs to get out and talk with farmers and employers to make sure crop science students are graduating with the academic knowledge they’ll need to make the right choices.
“The value of our research, extension and academic programs is that they have given our students the chance to realize that we do have choices,” Patterson said.
“And if we choose wisely, we can achieve our dreams.”