Plant grew up in an agricultural community in Fort Fairfield, working on farms throughout high school and during harvest break.
“While my parents didn’t have a farm, our backyard was 100 feet from a potato field,” he says.
He came to UMaine in 1998 to study biology and pursue a career in osteopathic medicine. He spent his summers working in integrated pest management with UMaine Cooperative Extension crop specialist Jim Dwyer at Aroostook Farm, the potato research facility of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station in Presque Isle. By his senior year, when he took a course in plant pathology, Plant knew his career path had done a 180.
“My father always was involved in civic organizations, volunteering and helping people,” he says. “I wanted to do the same in the professional setting.”
Plant received his undergraduate degree from UMaine in 2002 and began work as an integrated pest management professional in Extension’s Presque Isle office. One of his most memorable calls came from a grower concerned about lesions on potato plant leaves. That’s the year late blight was found in the county.
Making one of his first major disease diagnoses and recommendations for management was a bit nerve-racking, he admits, but it solidified his career choice.
“It was so memorable because it showed just how much people’s livelihoods depend on how much we can help,” he says.
In that same potato field, Plant happened to spy a weed that also had succumbed to late blight. The annual broadleaf, hairy nightshade, is particularly problematic for its ability to harbor diseases and insects, and to resist herbicides. The find, one of the first in Maine, led Plant into research that resulted in his first published papers.
His master’s and now his dissertation research focuses on white mold in potatoes, a little-studied fungus. Plant hopes to better understand the effect of the ubiquitous pathogen on potato yield and how management techniques can control it.
In 2008, when Plant became an Extension educator, his perspective became even broader. He likens it to being a country doctor, only in this case, the questions he fields in the farm pasture or in the grocery store aisle are related to all aspects of agriculture. That includes being ever-vigilant for ways to keep Maine farms healthy.
That year, when oil hit $150 a barrel, making energy costs another serious problem for farmers, Plant knew he had to look for alternatives. He also was getting calls from people who had bought former farmland and moved to Maine. Their question: What should they do with their 40 acres?
“Knowing a lot of the farmers I work with, I take their success to heart,” he says. “It’s difficult to see them struggling. I don’t want to see anybody fail. A big part of my research now is trying to find or create new and better markets for the nonpotato years during (crop) rotations. Finding profitable crop rotations has been the biggest weak point in the potato crop system.”