I AM CALS: Rick Brandenburg Serves Farmers in N.C., 50 Countries
After 38 years, an expert on pests in peanuts and turf finds international work more rewarding than ever.
His liver shut down, his kidneys stopped working, and his lungs partially collapsed. For weeks, his wife stayed by his bedside, fearing he would die.
Rick Brandenburg had contracted malaria while in Malawi helping farmers and scientists solve peanut production problems.
Today, Brandenburg calls his recovery miraculous.
And he calls his experience a stupid mistake. After all, he’s an NC State University insect scientist, or entomologist, and malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. He knew how to protect himself, but he didn’t.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” he says. He no longer does.
So why was Brandenburg back in the African nation just seven months after his release from the hospital?
“I have to admit, there was a little bit inside of me that had to prove that I could go back,” he says. But there was another reason.
Working in North Carolina and abroad has allowed Brandenburg to satisfy his scientific curiosity and his desire to help people.
“It’s a passion. I believe I have skills that allow me to work with people and have empathy for their situation,” says Brandenburg, an expert in managing pests in peanuts and turf. The largely grant-funded work has also enabled him to experience a little bit of the adventurous spirit fueled by hours watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
As a high school student, he wrote to Marlin Perkins, the TV show’s host, several times.
“Look, I’m a farm kid. I’ve got a strong back. I will carry cameras. I will carry cages. I’ll go for free if my expenses are paid to Africa to help film some of these shows,” he recalls writing. “Of course I never heard back from him.”
Time tempered Brandenburg’s belief that satisfying his sense of adventure mattered. International work was hard, after all. Yet he remains motivated, 38 years after a scientist invited him to Tunisia to share insights on managing agricultural pests.
“This was my first trip abroad. When I left, I could’ve turned around and gone back there the next day,” Brandenburg says. “So I continued to look for opportunities.”
Those opportunities began to unfold when he arrived at NC State in 1985. He went on an industry-sponsored study tour in Europe, then began sharing his expertise through speeches and assistance to scientists and graduate students in other nations.
In all, his job took him to over 50 countries and to all continents except Antarctica.
Brandenburg says that before he started traveling internationally, he’d only been to five or so states other than Indiana, where he was born. He always thought he would be a farmer, until he discovered his knack for science and interest in putting it to use.
Brandenburg was in college when the idea of integrated pest management emerged. IPM is an approach designed to incorporate economically and environmentally sound cultural practices as a way to lower risky and costly pesticide use. Brandenburg decided to find out more.
After earning his Ph.D. at NC State and joining the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology faculty, four years later, he began training Extension agents. In turn, those agents have helped North Carolina peanut growers adopt IPM practices.
He also introduced the methods to those who grow turf-grass and sod and maintain golf courses, athletic fields and lawns. And he conducted insect research that has paved the way for even better management of agricultural pests, like mole crickets that uproot turfgrass and thrips that spread tomato spotted wilt virus to peanuts.
Thanks to the IPM approach, North Carolina growers can protect their crops, their income and the environment all at once. Not only that, farmers in developing nations can still raise their yields, even when they can’t afford such chemicals.
In Malawi, where Brandenburg had contracted malaria, just protecting enough food for a farmer’s own family makes a life-or-death difference. Farmer Andrew Goodman calls Brandenburg’s work there both prodigious and selfless.
Goodman, manager of farm operations for Horizon Farming Ltd., has collaborated with Brandenburg on first-of-its-kind peanut research to increase agricultural productivity, incomes and food security in Malawian villages.
“There was very little research done for sustainable and profitable peanut production,” Goodman says. “For people in many developing countries like ours, peanuts are the principal source of digestible protein, cooking oil and vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.”
That gives the research direct bearing on the economic and nutritional wellbeing of families, Goodman adds. It’s led to better disease control, higher yields and lower pro-duction costs, and it’s allowed farmers to produce more food than their families need, so they can sell the surplus.
Chancy Sibakwe also met Brandenburg through a research project in Malawi. Brandenburg was the principal scientist, and he was a student at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Now an agriculture and livelihood programs coordinator at the Catholic Development Commission in Zomba, Malawi, Sibakwe credits Brandenburg with teaching him scientific methods that he shares with others.
“Whatever I learnt from Dr. Rick, I apply when I work—for example, (when I) provide extension services to farmers on pre- and post-management of aflatoxins in crops and other agronomic husbandry practices aimed to improving crop production.
Brandenburg likewise feels honored that Goodman, Sibakwe and other farmers, scientists and students have spent time with him. They’ve helped him slowly learn the art of working with people in different countries.
He knows that, as an invited expert, he doesn’t have all the answers to the agricultural problems they face.
He’s learned patience, understanding that international agricultural development can be plodding in countries with government instability, scattershot aid programs and other challenges.
Brandenburg wants to help link universities, agricultural enterprises, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. He considers establishing relationships with representatives of such organizations essential.
As he nears retirement, Brandenburg will continue building those links. Over the next three years, he’ll work in CALS’ International Programs office, leading an effort to help bring the college’s Extension expertise to countries where universities lack well-developed outreach programs.
Extension partners with farmers, learning more about their day-to-day problems and helping solve the problems through research-based knowledge and technology, and Brandenburg is excited about the prospects of sharing the extension concept where it’s needed.
“I’ll be taking all these decades of having worked internationally to help build extension programs internationally while helping people who do extension work here get involved.”
He hopes his NC State Extension colleagues find the work as enriching as he has.
Brandenburg recalls one hot, humid day when the rewards became especially clear.
Five or six years ago, he walked with a group of people, including a graduate student, down a tree-lined road in Malawi. The student carried the youngest of her four children on her back. She and Brandenburg talked as they neared a field where crews detasseled seed corn.
She began to explain the process of removing the tassel of a corn stalk to keep it from self-pollinating. That allows the corn to crossbreed with a nearby plant that’s a different variety, creating hybrids that have beneficial traits such as drought tolerance or insect resistance.
“Believe it or not,” Brandenburg told her, “I used to do that in the fields where I’m from. Seed companies hired crews to detassel corn. They’d get kids from town, and during certain times of the year, I would be a crew boss.
“In the Midwest, a lot of fields are sectioned, and fields are a mile by a mile,” he remembers telling her. “You’d start down these rows pulling tassels, going from one end of the field to the other. Then you’d take a drink of water and come back the other way—back and forth, all day long.”
The student stopped walking and looked at Brandenburg. With tears in her eyes, she hugged him.
“So you’re just like me,” she said.
Brandenburg hasn’t fully processed what happened.
“Here was a young lady who worked hard all day and was motivated to do more, and what I didn’t realize was there was still a barrier between the two of us. When she found out that there were at least some similarities in our lives, it was like that barrier was taken away.
“She understood me better, and I understood her better. And that was after 30 years of working internationally,” he says. “That was a big moment for me, and I’ll just leave it at that.”