Holistic housecalls: The (plant) doctor is in


Dear Recent Ag Grads: I sympathize with you. You walked across that stage triumphantly, decked out in fancy garb, hands pumping, to raucous applause, pomp and circumstance blaring.

Now five months out, that fleeting high has died down, replaced by a sobering reality check. How is that next chapter going to take shape? Perhaps you have it all sketched out (kudos!), or maybe it’s just an indecipherable blob.

I was in the latter camp. And that blob was a slowly meandering, all-consuming anxiety fest.

It shouldn’t be that way though. I graduated from a stellar institution (Cornell) with a Bachelor’s in Plant Science. But that didn’t assure me anything. I had a gig with Cooperative Extension back home on Long Island. I enjoyed it, but would it coalesce into a career? In an effort to professionalize the ranks, all Extension agents had to have a Master’s. For my purposes, that piece of parchment with “Bachelor’s” printed so elegantly on the front was just an inelegant stopgap.

Time to get back in the game: the game being grad school. Heck with it, I was going to future proof myself and get a doctoral degree.

I made some inquiries, but nothing really stood out. The zing wasn’t there. And besides, I was headed to New Zealand for a year-long fellowship through Rotary International. No particular sense of urgency. But I was only delaying the inevitable day of reckoning.

Funny how one fortuitous event can not only renew your resolve, but reorient you on a totally unexpected path.

That event? One of the perks of working with Cooperative Extension is the opportunity to attend national meetings to swap notes with peers. And I was headed to the National IPM Symposium in Indianapolis with my coworkers.

It was here that I came across a newfangled idea called the Doctor of Plant Medicine Program at the University of Florida. It was a D.P.M., the plant equivalent of an M.D. or D.V.M. CSI, front and center, gone plant — Crop Scene Investigation style. Is the culprit living, like a fungus, or non-living, like a nutritional imbalance? Conduct a forensic investigation, look for patterns in the field, employ a battery of tests, and diagnose what’s ailing your plant(s)! Or skip the formalities and go with your intuition. Confirm and then “prescribe” an action plan to tackle the issue. The art and science of diagnosis in a tidy package.

Pioneering and exciting, the D.P.M. was barely five years out of the gate. It embodied everything that attracted me to agriculture. It was applied science — like getting reacquainted with an old friend, at a higher order level of thinking and integration. As a professional practitioner degree, I could get the doctoral credential, but didn’t have to conform to the Ph.D. model of “know everything about a very narrow sliver of a playing field.” Instead, I could indulge my varied interests at the whole field level — seeing how plant/soil science, entomology/nematology, and plant pathology all contributed to plant health — and how to optimize environmental sustainability, economic viability, and human health outcomes. It tied all of those frayed, discontinuous disciplinary ends (since disciplines tend to self-segregate) into a package that benefits the end user — the farmer or homeowner. This expressly went against the grain of most academic conventions! In fact, the D.P.M. program had cooperating constituent departments — all providing teaching, research opportunities, and general expertise that could be counted on to resolve the big picture.

I applied from New Zealand — transcontinental air mail, and emailed questions across a 16-hour divide. When I returned stateside, I moved to Gainesville, Florida, and joined the Gator Nation. It was a stark departure from my undergrad days in upstate New York: a year-round smorgasbord of pests, diseases, and other ailments beckoned — making it a perfect backdrop to hone my studies.

The parallels with the well-established M.D. and D.V.M. were inescapable. No dissertation was required, so coursework and hands-on clinical experience was in order. The teaching was first rate, leveraging actual case studies and scenarios. During “rotations” I was afforded the opportunity to intern at the plant disease clinic, nematode assay lab, insect diagnostic/ID lab, and soil testing lab. I also worked with the disease Gummy Stem Blight in watermelon — deliberately inoculating fields and evaluating new protective chemistries (fungicidal vaccinations of sorts). I also had the opportunity to work with up-and-comer Asian Soybean Rust when it was the new kid on the block — and on everyone’s panicked radar screen (fortunately it fizzled).

But what about D.P.M. name recognition? Right out of the gate, my former Extension boss said it’d be viewed as equivalent to a Ph.D. And I’ve had no problems with acceptance in academia (probably the most intractable bunch on paper). Nor have the 60+ grads who have secured positions in government, industry, teaching, Extension, and nonprofits!

And unlike most professional schools, there’s no horror stories about graduating a quarter million in debt. Debt load is a minuscule fraction of that. If you can get an assistantship working with one of the many affiliated faculty (or a federal fellowship since plant health is identified as a critical need area), you’re looking at a tuition waiver plus a stipend. Thanks to a fellowship with the Department of Homeland Security, I banked dough in grad school. And I got to work with cutting-edge counter agro-terrorism instrumentation at Los Alamos National Lab.

As with anything, your mileage may vary — but I’m convinced that the D.P.M. degree is going to continue to gain momentum as we examine intersectional questions of plant health: invasive pests/diseases and global trade, insect vectors, rapid diagnostics, precision ag, IPM and sustainability, and food security and agro-terrorism. If you fancy yourself a generalist who seeks to 1) effortlessly speak the “dialects” of multiple ag disciplines, and 2) work in nearly any capacity in the ag sector — this degree is well suited for you.

Already, the notion of Plant Doctors is making inroads worldwide, with programs in Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Thailand, Taiwan, and China. The Doctor of Plant Health (D.P.H.) degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers a similarly structured program to the D.P.M., but with a Midwestern twist. So fear not, your friendly neighborhood plant doctor is in. I hope other U.S. universities will emulate the model. When linked to the broader idea of One Health, nothing could be more timely or relevant. Please think about representing and joining the plant doctor corps!


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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