Lamkey Named New Chair of Agronomy Department

A professor of corn breeding at ISU, Kendall Lamkey served this past year as interim head of the department.

An Iowa State University professor of agronomy, Kendall Lamkey, is the new chair of the Department of Agronomy at ISU. For the past year he headed the department on an interim basis. Lamkey's appointment, announced last week, as the new head of the department is for three years and may be renewed. He'll continue to serve as director of the Raymond F. Baker Center for Plant Breeding and holds the Pioneer Distinguished Chair in Maize Breeding at ISU.

An Iowa State alumnus, Lamkey earned a doctorate in plant breeding and cytogenetics in 1985. He earned a master's degree in plant breeding and genetics and a bachelor's degree in agronomy from the University of Illinois. His research focuses on the application of quantitative genetics to plant breeding problems in corn. Lamkey runs an inbred line development program and conducts several recurrent selection programs.

The agronomy department educates about 350 undergraduate and graduate students annually and has about 50 faculty and 100 staff members. Learn more at

Understands importance of bioeconomy

Raised on a farm in Illinois, and as a corn breeder at Iowa State, Lamkey understands the opportunities presented by the emphasis on ethanol production and bioenergy in Iowa and the Midwest. Corn acreage is increasing.

"We have about 140 undergraduate students majoring in agronomy at ISU and we graduate an average of about 30 per year," he says. "That's a number I would like to double." He'd like to take it from 30 to 60 because a degree in agronomy today can take a graduate a lot of places with different career opportunities.

Lamkey defines agronomy as "the sustainable production of food, feed, fiber and now fuel. There is a lot of opportunity to apply the science of agronomy to help meet the needs of everyday life." ISU has about 200 graduate students in agronomy. About half attend classes on campus and the other half are enrolled in ISU's distance learning program to earn an advanced agronomy degree.

ISU plays vital role in research

What role does ISU play in research? A number of companies are quickly developing improved crop varieties and production technology in Iowa. What role does he see as the one that fits for a university land-grant agronomic program?

"We do the basic research on sustainable production of crops for food, feed, fiber and fuel. We bring together the scientific knowledge that applies. The industry picks up on that basic knowledge and takes it to the market," he explains. "We educate and provide the scientists and other workers for agriculture industry."

Does Lamkey feel the university has to watch out that it doesn't get bypassed by corporations who are doing a lot of genetic work and who are moving rapidly, especially in the corn area, to research and develop new products?

"The companies are moving rapidly," he points out. "But we interact with industry a lot and work with them, and keep up with what is happening and with the technology being developed. Industry doesn't do a lot of the basic research. For example one of my big priorities in agronomy is translational genomics - the application of genomics. Industry does the application. But we at the university do the basic research to tie it together."

Unbiased information for farmers

University research also still plays its traditional role of giving objective, unbiased recommendations to farmers. This is to cross-check the technology industry sends to the marketplace, to assure farmers that these products are beneficial.

For example, ISU has crop variety testing around the state, as well as does testing of various products at the ISU research farms.

"One of our major roles is to provide farmers and others factual information to help them make decisions at a local level," says Lamkey.

Lamkey is very interested in biotechnology and what's happening in that field of research and product development, since ISU is a leader in biotech research. The Plant Sciences Institute on the Ames campus is part of ISU Agronomy.

A federal judge in California ruled on March 12 that Roundup Ready alfalfa seed should be pulled off the market. The preliminary injunction ruled that Roundup Ready alfalfa could not be planted in the U.S. after March 30, 2007. The court has scheduled oral arguments on the nature of any permanent injunction in the case for April 27, 2007. At that time, the court may remove the injunction, change it, or extend it until USDA conducts a complete Environmental Impact Statement.

Lamkey thinks this is a significant court case. "We're all waiting to see how it will eventually be decided," he says. "My understanding, by just reading about it is that the people in this court case who are against Roundup Ready alfalfa are really reacting to whether or not the environmental assessments that are being made to get transgenes on the market have been done properly."

"Whatever ends up being the outcome of this particular court case, it will have huge implications for farmers and agriculture," says Lamkey.

University works with stakeholders

ISU's Agronomy Department helps find solutions to produce crops in an efficient, environmentally sustainable manner. For example, there's concern about weeds developing resistance to continuous use of glyphosate herbicide, since it is now used on nearly all soybean acres and over half the corn in Iowa.

"Our department is working on this issue, doing research and giving weed management advice to farmers and others," he says. "We recently partnered with other universities and industry in a forum attended by people from around the country who deal with the weed resistance issue - exploring how we can keep weed resistance from becoming a big problem for agriculture."

How does Lamkey feel going into this new century as head of the department? "I grew up on a farm in Illinois and now is the most exciting time I've ever seen in agriculture," he answers. "There are a lot of related questions to be answered regarding energy, environment and crop production to help feed and fuel the world. The opportunities are tremendous for everyone in agriculture. The answers and solutions we come up with will depend on leadership at all levels."

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