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USDA sugarcane researcher retires after 37 years

Mike Grisham, USDA sugarcane research leader retired after 37 years of service to the Louisiana sugarcane industry.

Dr. Michael Grisham, Research Leader of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma, Louisiana has retired.

Grisham first came to Louisiana in 1984 to work for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Unit as a plant pathologist. After 37 years of service to the Louisiana sugarcane industry, Dr. Grisham retired not only as the research leader of the sugarcane research unit, but as a leading nationally and internationally recognized authority on diseases of sugarcane.

He is an expert on mosaic virus, a pathogen that caused the near-collapse of the Louisiana sugarcane industry in the early 1900s.  As the primary ARS pathologist at Houma for the last 37 years, Mike has led in the evaluation of every sugarcane line for disease resistance prior to its release as a new variety for Louisiana sugarcane growers. Mike helped develop and release HoCP 96-540, one of the most widely planted, disease-resistant varieties in Louisiana. As Research Leader of the ARS’s Sugarcane Research Unit since 2012, Mike has overseen the unprecedented financial growth of the unit within the last three years and the employment of a cadre of early-career scientists (soil scientist, research plant physiologist, plant geneticist, research entomologist, and weed scientist), who, along with the other scientists in the unit, position the research program to continue helping keep the Louisiana sugarcane industry profitable well into the future.

“I grew up in Arkansas in Hot Springs and the Arkansas side of Texarkana and earned my undergraduate degree at Ouachita Baptist, Mike said. “I was in the ROTC but got a deferment to go to graduate school. I wasn’t an “ag guy” but went in that direction where I could learn a practical application of my love of plants.”

After serving two years in the United States Army, his undergraduate and graduate advisers suggested he get the most advanced degree he could, so he went to the University of Minnesota and earned his Ph.D. in plant pathology and plant breeding. He continued serving his country for an additional 20 years in the Army Reserves and retired as a lieutenant colonel.

“When I got to Houma, the farm on Bull Run Road was established with the juice lab and shop building,” he said. “I inherited two veteran plant pathology technicians (Druis Bourg and Paul Bergeron) with over 45 years of experience. They became my mentors in sugarcane pathology. However, they soon retired. But the pathology program has been extremely fortunate to have Kathy Warnke and Jeri Maggio as technicians with even more years of experience. When Ed Richard retired in 2010, I was one of the acting research leaders but took on the job full-time in 2012. And again I was fortunate to have the invaluable experience of Brenda Aysenne as the Unit’s Program Assistant and Gail Champagne as the Administrative Officer to meet the requirements of research leader. ”

It’s been a privilege for me to work with a staff that’s passionate about serving the Louisiana sugarcane industry,” he said. “The industry has been responsive to the research unit and because of the three-way agreement, between the USDA, LSU AgCenter, and the American Sugar Cane League, it’s always been a collaborative effort.

“We’ve always been able to deal with plant disease effectively. When I came here, the two major diseases were mosaic and ratoon stunting disease; then leaf scald, yellow leaf virus and orange rust. We dealt with them.”

Dr. Grisham is also proud of the way the research unit has worked with the Texas sugarcane industry in the Rio Grande Valley. “We established a stronger relationship with the Texas growers,” he said.

He noted that because of the productivity of the unit, the League and others were able to leverage their productivity into continued and increased funding for the unit.

“Getting your hands dirty is key to our success, but newer technology is making a big difference in how we do things,” he said.

Mike jokingly quoted General MacArthur and said “Old plant pathologists don’t die; they just fade away and the work is continued by the next generation of researchers. And with the next generation of sugarcane researchers at the unit, I think the future is very bright for this unit and the sugarcane industry.”

The Louisiana sugarcane industry is lucky to have had a dedicated public servant like Dr. Michael Grisham working on its behalf and we thank him for his hard work and leadership.

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