Plant Doctors: Modernizing Plant Health Education for Sustainable Plant Production Systems

Gary L. Hein Ph.D., Director Doctor of Plant Health Program University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Amanda C. Hodges, Ph.D., Director Doctor of Plant Medicine Program University of Florida

A myriad of national and international issues challenge the economic and environmental sustainability of U.S. plant production systems,e.g.    globalization, resiliency in the face of a changing climate, feeding an ever increasing population, etc. Improved student capacity (including increased student numbers and educational direction) is repeatedly cited as a necessary component in addressing these challenges. An APLU (2009) report cited an ‘increasing gap between discovery and implementation’ in the agricultural and natural resources sciences. Along with other reports (NAS 2009, NAS 2010), it cited the need for more comprehensive graduate educational programs that increase student capacity with the breadth and depth necessary to deal with increasingly complex plant production systems. In order for these production systems to be sustainable at all levels, they must be more knowledge intensive, creating a greater need for individuals with comprehensive skills necessary for management, diagnostics, and problem solving. They also cite the need to integrate educational and extension experiences into these programs to produce graduates with the skills to ‘translate discoveries to impact’ (APLU 2009).

Contrary to these recommendations, at many institutions applied graduate training has given way to basic research programs and a concomitant decrease in the financial support for applied educational efforts. Many U.S. Land Grant Universities increasingly struggle to interface with industry and producer clientele groups due to reductions in applied faculty and staff. The historical single-discipline model for graduate student training, while still relevant, is not sufficient to meet these challenges.  There is a shortage of broadly trained field professionals who understand the complex interactions affecting plant production systems and are capable of diagnosing problems and managing production systems. These professionals also need to effectively adapt technology advances to real world production situations and translate these advances to the producers. These issues create an opportunity to embrace an additional graduate education model developed to insure the economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability of U. S. plant production systems.

The Doctor of Plant Health (DPH) program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Doctor of Plant Medicine (DPM) program at the University of Florida are professional doctoral level programs that focus on providing interdisciplinary training across all aspects of plant health. Comprehensive education across disciplines is coupled with the requirement for extensive internship experience. These plant practitioners (i.e. plant doctors) will have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide industry, government, and academia comprehensive diagnostic and integrated management expertise for all plant production systems. With these two programs (DPM started in 1999 with 58 alumni; DPH started in 2009 with first graduates in 2013) a new profession has been created that will serve to keep American agriculture competitive while addressing  the many challenges to sustainable food, feed, fiber, and biofuel production at a broader system level. The University of Florida DPM graduates have been employed in industry, the private sector, federal and state government, and academia, and the program receives more employment requests than graduating students.

Even though high employer demand  exists for these programs, funding and  student financing issues have limited student enrollment. The uncertainty in funding support, compared to graduate student assistantship support, and the concern over extensive loan debt, limits the programs to those entrepreneurial students willing to take on these risks, but exclude many highly talented individuals with applied interests who also pass up graduate school due to lack of interest in a research-oriented program. Support is needed from all segments of agriculture (e.g. private industry, NIFA, US-AID, APHIS, other agencies) to enhance the development of these programs, provide impetus for the establishment of additional comparable programs and help insure a more sustainable future for all U.S. plant production systems. Specific needs include:

  • The majority of federally-supported graduate fellowship or assistantship opportunities in plant sciences related programs are heavily structured towards single discipline-focused research based degrees. The advent of programs with a professional emphasis creates the need for alternate support mechanisms. Mechanisms to  support students with an interest in multidisciplinary teaching, extension, and/or applied research would significantly assist in recruiting and training the next generation of multidisciplinary plant health professionals. Examples might include teaching- or extension-focused fellowships or assistantships. These mechanisms must be made explicit or the academic emphasis on traditional research based training will overshadow this educational model.
  • Partnerships for supporting these types of programs need to be encouraged and developed to insure their success and expansion. Partnerships must encompass industry, USDA, other relevant agencies, and participating universities.
  • Many other established  professional programs have a long history of employment for their graduates and student financial support (e.g. loan programs) that encourage enrollment.    A  loan  support  program  for students in these professional programs needs to be investigated.
  • Internationally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has presented a new paradigm called sustainable crop production intensification that ‘produces more from the same area of land while conserving natural resources’ (FAO 2011). This approach is considered ‘knowledge intensive’ and will require highly trained practitioners capable of dealing with management, diagnosis and problem solving across the entire production system.   BothU.S. plant doctor programs lack adequate support for funding international students; however, both the U.S. and international students would significantly benefit from multicultural, agriculture-based interactions in these programs. Support for both international and domestic students pursuing professional degrees need to be considered by USDA, US-AID and other agencies responsible for international agricultural development.

The DPM and DPH programs provide a dramatically different model for graduate education to supply professionals capable of meeting a variety of applied needs. Graduates of these professional programs, i.e. plant doctors, will help provide the knowledge intensive leadership required for sustainable plant production systems that address the challenges of the 21st Century.


(APLU) Assoc. of Public and Land-Grant Univ. 2009. Human Capacity Development. APLU, Washington, DC.

(FAO) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Save and Grow – a  policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production. FAO, Rome, Italy.

(NAS) The National Academy of Sciences. 2009. Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

(NAS) The National Academy of Sciences. 2010. Toward sustainable agricultural systems in the 21st century. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

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