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US (NC): A special specialty crops breeder

NC State’s Todd Wehner has been breeding better specialty crops, from cucumbers to melons, for over 40 years, and his latest work with stevia could lead to new opportunities for growers in North Carolina and beyond.

Wehner is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in NC State University’s Department of Horticultural Science. He’s worked at NC State since 1979, and his contributions to agriculture and agribusiness recently earned him a top international industry accolade, Pickle Packers International’s Hall of Fame Award.

The nonprofit trade association, with members in about a dozen countries, bestowed the honor virtually on Oct. 20. The honor goes to those who make the greatest contributions to the advancement and protection of the pickle industry through their technical service, basic research or beneficial inventions.

Phil Denlinger, vice president for procurement with the nation’s top pickle brand, Mount Olive Pickles, praised the professor’s efforts to breed better cucumbers, saying “he’s done a lot for the industry.”

As an example, Denlinger pointed to Wehner’s work in helping growers overcome downy mildew by developing varieties resistant to the devastating disease. Wehner’s released more than 90 cultivars and breeding lines. Some used a cucumber relative from the foothills of the Himalayas to develop nematode-resistant cucumbers.

The breeder has also contributed substantially to the science of plant breeding, publishing more than 220 journal articles and book chapters. He’s also trained more than 70 graduate students, visiting scientists and postdocs, some of whom are now leading public and private breeding programs around the world.

Former student Gabe Gusmini called Wehner an “empowering and supportive” advisor – more a mentor or coach than a boss.

“He gives a lot of freedom and independence to his students, but he’s always there, ready to support and help us with our work,” Gusmini added.

Gusmini, who formerly worked in research and development for PepsiCo and Syngenta, earned his Ph.D. under Wehner in 2005, and the two are working together now in a startup plant breeding venture, the Plant Pathways Co.

Gusmini called Wehner’s impact on the plant breeding industry “extremely significant.”

“Everybody in the plant breeding industry knows him as the reference point in plant breeding for training people professionally,” Gusmini said. “Most of them have ended up in high-level positions in companies. Many are leading worldwide breeding programs, some of them are executives in companies and some have started their own companies.”

Wehner sat down recently to discuss his approach to teaching, his work with the pickle and cucumber industries and his latest research on stevia.

Read more at NC State University (Dee Shore)

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