"The Same Old Thing"

Dan Royse ca. 1990

Dan Royse appeared in the spring/summer 1990 issue of Penn State Agriculture in an article by Kim Dionis titled "Mushrooms from Trees." Royse is shown with a synthetic log he was studying that could produce three to four times more shiitake mushrooms than grow on natural logs.

Recently I heard the host of a national radio talk show criticizing federal support for soybean research as unnecessary and wasteful. After all, we already know everything we need to know about soybeans, we’ve been conducting research for decades. On the surface the logic might makes sense. Soybeans have been cultivated for decades in the United States and a lot of research has been done. That logic gives rise to questions: Why do we need to spend more money on this kind of work? Don’t we know enough already? Aren’t we just indulging researchers by funding more of the same old thing?

A few weeks later I was at the Mushroom Research Center photographing Dan Royse, professor of plant pathology, in an environment remarkably similar to one I had photographed him in 20 years earlier. On the surface, other than he and I getting older, everything seemed much the same. With the radio show still in my head I asked, “Weren’t you doing this same work 20 years ago?”

The answer was yes.

Royse explained that his work is directed at improving mushroom production efficiency, edible mushroom quality, and ways to minimize production costs and maximize profits. He and his colleagues may seem to be doing the same old thing, but it only seems that way. A closer look reveals a broader commitment.

Agriculture is a moving target. Change is a constant. Markets demand better production methods. Diseases and pests appear, requiring solutions that don’t exist. Think stink bugs, emerald ash borer, or Asian longhorn beetles. Or tighter regulations of ag production upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. The demand for answers continues to grow along with increasing pressure to deliver food. Think about the growth of the world’s population and you have to ask if agriculture can keep up.

The notion that researchers find an answer and never have to look again in that direction is wrong and undermines our ability as a society to make good decisions about funding research and extension.

The college is working hard to address a decline in funding brought on by a troubled economy. Its focus remains on finding answers to critical questions and issues that exist today, and being prepared to tackle those that will appear in the future. It’s important not to get trapped in the same-old-thing pattern of thinking. Instead we need to think about continuing to support a strong agricultural research and extension system in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Steve Williams

Photo: Steve Williams