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Pavlista retires from Panhandle R&E Center

Alexander Pavlista

Alexander Pavlista's retirement from the faculty of the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center at the end of March marked the end of 50 years of continuous research, 29 of them at the Panhandle Center.

Pavlista knew he wanted to be a scientist at an early age. He was 13 and knew he wanted to do scientific research, 15 when he picked biology, 21 when he chose biomedical research over oceanography. He chose plant physiology, and by age 30 knew he wanted to use science in the service of agriculture.

Born in Praha, Czechoslovakia, he left the country in 1948 when his parents escaped the Communist regime there and migrated to the U.S. Growing up in New York City, he attended Manhattan College, where he received a bachelor's degree in biology with minors in chemistry and theology.

He received a Ph.D. in plant physiology at City University of New York, after two years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a National Institute of Health research trainee.

“One of Pavlista’s “bucket list” goals is writing a book, tentatively titled “From Plants to God.” The book will outline research in plant sciences that has altered theological concepts of the time.”

In 1988, Pavlista was hired as the potato specialist and crop physiologist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff. Prior to that he had spent two years as a USDA research associate at North Carolina State University and nine years as a research biologist at American Cyanamid.

At the Panhandle Center, Pavlista developed connections to the potato industry on the local, state and national levels. He served as president of the Potato Association of America in 2008, and he and his wife, Victoria, hosted the 2004 PAA meeting in Scottsbluff. In 2015, he was awarded an Honorary Life Membership Award in PAA.

A collection of his research has been organized on the World Wide Web as the Potato Education Guide, a comprehensive, practical guide categorized by topics such as varieties; soil management; insect, disease, and weed management; irrigation; physiological disorders; and production practices.

The Potato Education Guide was one of the earliest and most extensive collections of research-based information for farmers offered by Nebraska Extension. Originally housed at the Panhandle Center's website, it since migrated to Nebraska Extension's cropwatch.unl.edu, a vast source of information about all of Nebraska's agricultural crops.

For many years, Pavlista also published a regular newsletter, Potato Eyes.

Pavlista has seen a number of changes in Nebraska's potato industry. Yields have increased, thanks to research into production practices such as pest control, irrigation scheduling, and sulfur fertilization, as well as development of new varieties.

"Growth of the Nebraska Potato Industry," written by Pavlista and published in 2016 as a NebGuide (G2272), traces the industry's fluctuations over 149 years, in terms of acreage, yields, production, value and markets.

Potato production was first tracked in 1866, the year before Nebraska became a state, by the Nebraska Agricultural Statistics Service. That year, potatoes were grown on 5,000 total acres, yielding 36 hundredweight per acre. The total crop value was $500,000.

Between 1866 and today, there have been a number of ups and downs. From 1907 until the '30s, acreage plateaued at around 100,000 acres. The Dust Bowl and Great Depression caused acres to decline by more than one-third. Acreage leveled off at about 70,000 acres through World War II.

After the war, acreage declined for decades, hitting a low point of less than 7,000 acres in the 1970s, before recovering modestly to its present level of 13,000 to 14,000 acres.

As acreage has declined, however, the state's total production has mostly grown. In the early 1920s, with 140,000 acres, production was 7.0 million hundredweight. During World War II, acreage was down to 70,000, but growers produced as much as 7.5 million hundredweight. Since 2000, production has hovered between 8 million and 10.5 million hundredweight, from less than 20,000 harvested acres.

As part of a team of research and extension specialists at the Panhandle Center, Pavlista has also studied other crops, such as wheat, canola, fenugreek and corn, and has explored new markets and new crops.

Reflecting on his career, Pavlista is reluctant to dwell on his accomplishments. From the farmers' perspective, Pavlista said, an important area has been chemical management of crops. He has conducted research into areas such as sulfur fertilization for disease control, pesticide evaluation, and limited irrigation.

But scientific inquiry, which captured his imagination at age 13 and drew him to agriculture, has led to some career highlights. One of these is research into plant growth regulators. Pavlista has studied the effects of gibberellic acid (GA), a plant hormone that regulates growth and development.

Pavlista has studied GA's effects in several different crops for several purposes. One of these is changing plant architecture, such as more upright dry edible bean plants that facilitate direct harvest. Another is speeding early development of winter wheat, thus allowing later planting dates to accommodate rotations with summer row crops.

In retirement, Alex and Victoria will be living in Denver, relaxing with puzzles, games, and reading; staying active by skiing, swimming and walking and writing. He also has been granted emeritus status by the promotion and tenure committee in the UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

One of Pavlista's "bucket list" goals is writing a book, tentatively titled "From Plants to God." The book will outline research in plant sciences that has altered theological concepts of the time.

The book will begin with Aristotle, the philosopher and scientist of ancient Greece, who is credited with the birth of plant physiology. In the first recorded experiment in plant physiology, Aristotle was able to disprove the popular idea that life was produced by ether, some divine force that existed in air.

The book will end with botanist and plant physiologist F.C. Steward, who in the 1950s conducted experiments on carrots to demonstrate that plant cells are totipotent — that they carry the genetic information to enable them to develop into complete, reproducing individual plants. This was a key step in demonstrating the feasibility of cloning, according to Pavlista. ❖

— Ostdiek is the communications/technology specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center