College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
University of Missouri-Columbia
Riverland Community College, Minnesota
Jerry Nelson describes himself as a professor emeritus, but perhaps professor "emeritus" is closer to the truth. He still works half time as a Curators' Professor of Agronomy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and his off-campus activities hardly comprise a graceful retirement. He recently headed off to South Korea for the 24th time. "Or maybe 25th—I've kind of lost track. I went there five times last summer," said Nelson, who's helping the Koreans design a national high-technology agricultural center. "It's sort of an intermediate step between basic laboratory research and the research that goes on in the field that the farmers see."
A nationally recognized authority on plant physiology, Nelson has co-authored five books, published more than 200 research papers, and received the University of Minnesota's Siehle Prize for Excellence in Agriculture that is awarded to those have made extraordinary contributions to food production and the alleviation of hunger. Nelson's research has focused on plant physiology, particularly alfalfa and forage grasses. "I've spent three-fourths of my life just watching the grass leafs grow," said Nelson.
Growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, Nelson's academic career began at Austin Junior College (now Riverland Community College), which he chose largely for economic reasons. "That was the one I could afford," said Nelson. "I could stay at home and continue with my job working with some farmers and commuting back and forth."
Enrolling in 1957, the year the Soviet Sputnik launch altered the course of American science education, Nelson found AJC an eye-opening experience, not only for the sciences but also for the humanities and the social sciences. "I still feel a very strong deficit in that area, but the bridge that was built started to help me understand history and culture," said Nelson. "Science and technology can do a lot of things, but society will determine which of those things we get to use."
Nelson, who went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, originally majored in animal science. "But I gradually became more interested in the plant side—what was dictating the quality of the feed that went in, particularly in pastures and forages," Nelson said. "Corn grain is pretty consistent; so are soybeans and those sorts of things—the seed crops. But the vegetative crops are heavily influenced by the environment and the management they're given."
Nelson has worked extensively in Europe, Tunisia, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, India, Kenya, and even North Korea, and the interaction between educational institutions and industry he has witnessed has made him rethink the relationship between private enterprise and U.S. community colleges. "What is the role of industry in terms of public education? Industry brings an employee who is educated by the public and then they're shrouded with these patent rights," said Nelson. "The employee's benefit is direct to the industry but indirect to the public through the industry. So how do we deal with those industrial relationships?"
Nelson maintains close ties with Riverland Community College, consulting frequently with college leadership and establishing two Jerry and Barbara Nelson Endowed Scholarships in memory of his wife. The scholarships have no restrictions. "I just left them wide open," said Nelson. "If someone wants to use it as a steppingstone to a four-year university, that's fine. But if those people become better employees and more involved with the government and the general sociology of the area, that's contributing a tremendous amount too. They serve on school boards and do things the general public does, but they can do it with a better education."