Interview with Dennis Fulbright
posted on December 9, 2010 2:10pm
Dennis Fulbright is a Michigan State University professor of plant pathology and faculty coordinator of the Rogers Reserve in Jackson. Read on to learn more about his research and his thought’s on Michigan’s chestnut industry.
How did you get involved with chestnuts?
I started working with a naturally occurring biological control of chestnut blight, the disease that destroyed the American chestnut in the early 1900s. Michigan had remnant populations of American chestnut trees still living despite being infected with one of the worst plant diseases in history. As I continued to work on this aspect of chestnut, I learned that growers who had been planting blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees to develop their orchards were having prob lems with nut production.
Around 1990, two MSU
Extension county directors, Jim Bardenhagen (Leelanau County) and Burt Stanley (Antrim County), posed two fundamental questions that continue to form the foundation of today’s chestnut program: “How does MSU
want Extension to respond to planting chestnuts (or any new agricultural product)?” and “What do we tell growers when they ask if they should plant chestnuts?”
Although well schooled in cherries, apples and other small fruit, both directors knew little about chestnuts—not many people did at that time. I asked my department chairperson if I could help and was given permission. I began working with a new non-profit organization called the Midwest Nut Producers Council (MNPC), and in 1992, the MNPC initiated a chestnut cultivar trial at the MSU
Southwest Research and Extension Center in Benton Harbor. By 1996, the data from the trial suggested that germplasm, as much as anything else, was the source of the problem so we started the
hunt for Michigan-adapted germplasm. Beginning in 2001, with help from MSU
Extension, members of the MNPC formed the for-profit chestnut grower cooperative Chestnut Growers, Inc., with 40 members primarily from Michigan. Today, there are more chestnut growers in Michigan with
more acreage than any other state.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is working with graduate students and colleagues to make new discoveries. When I think back to a time in high school when I wanted to be a scientist, I wondered if I was capable of making unique discoveries; I now know the answer is yes. But what I didn’t know or was capable of understanding then was how many colleagues, graduate students and grant proposals it would take.
What has been the most memorable finding or experience in your MSU
career so far?
I am working on it right now. We have a chestnut kernel decay problem that is not found in Europe or Asia. This is going to be complex because it only occurs sporadically, but it can reduce the quality of the chestnuts being sold. It is not a storage mold but something more intimate with the kernel. We have many hints as to its origin, but nothing definitive yet. When this issue is solved, we will be growing the best tasting and highest quality chestnuts in the world, right here in Michigan.
In past efforts, I am most pleased with the chestnut biological control studies. The types of biological controls found in Michigan are unique to Michigan. There are biological controls in Europe and China, but ours appear to be different. We have two types of biological controls, one based on viruses within the fungal cells and another type based within the mitochondria of the fungal cells. Also, we know that whenever and wherever we expand our investigations, we will find something new and interesting. For example, now that we have an Italian chestnut-peeling machine at MSU
, we began studies on the chestnut shell trash and found that even this waste product carries unique products that will make the chestnut shell without its kernel worthy of more research.
What is the one thing that you really hope to accomplish before you retire?
I want to help the chestnut growers and their industry recognize their potential. Chestnut is an amazing food. Chestnut grows on a carbon-sequestering tree, is gluten-free and can be used in many aspects of meal preparation. It is perfect for vegetarian and omnivore diets and can be used in the preparation of appetizers, hummus, soups, breading, vegetables, stuffing, desserts, beer and liquor. Currently, chestnut is caught in that
"should we or shouldn’t we expand?” conundrum. If the industry stays small, the price will be too high to do much with it; if it expands, the price will drop and small growers will be hurt.
I’ve had the opportunity to eat chestnuts in eight countrieson four continents, and I believe Michigan produces one of the best chestnuts in the world.