My Horticulture Story or How I Went from Living in a Mud Hut to Having My Own Office in Just 10 Years

It’s been about 17 years since the blazing West African sun scorched the earth around me as I sat underneath a ramshackle shade structure attached to my mud hut.  It was easily over 100 degrees that day; of course, it was always over 100 degrees in northern Senegal, or so it seemed.  I glanced out over the Acacia nilotica trees that I had planted the evening before, wondering if they were going to live and create the hedge I envisioned or just flame out in the hot sun.  And, as I pondered their life sentence, I began to think about my own.

I graduated from MichiganStateUniversity with a degree in Forestry, but I wasn’t interested in the traditional forestry field.  Agroforestry and urban forestry were more interesting, but then again I wasn’t sure about that either.  I was halfway through my Peace Corps stint and I still had no idea what the future held after my 27 months in Senegal were over.  But, luckily for me and for the trees I planted, they grew and grew rapidly.  Over the next few months, I sat and watched them expand and thrive.  How did they make it in this environment, I wondered?  Why did this particular species grow so fast while others did not?  Why was this tree so well suited for the excruciating drought and heat, whereas others withered and died?  Over time I became very interested in this interaction of plant and environment.

Fast forward two years and I was freshly enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas under the direction of Dr. John R. Clark.  Dr. Curt Rom was also on my committee and together they helped me realize my goal of understanding the genotype × environment interaction that I had so abstractly wondered about four years earlier.  My master’s degree program was the best two years of schooling I have had in my life.  I learned what the possibilities a career in horticulture could reveal (as well as meeting my wife Richelle).  Yet, I believe the most profound discoveries were not in my research, but in how I could shape myself to fit into the world of horticulture.

The world of horticulture may be foreign to many outside of its domain.  If someone is a horticulturist, then they work with plants – end of story.  Yet, it is far more than that.  A horticulturist can also be a forensic scientist, a detective, a writer, a photographer, an artist, a historian, a teacher, an engineer, a leader, and so much more.  The scope of horticulture is so broad that no one interested in the field should feel constrained by it.  Horticulture can accommodate any field of interest and find a place to incorporate it seamlessly.  That is the appeal of horticulture, not the technical definition of what horticulture should be, but rather the all encompassing scope of what horticulture really is – a field where everyone is welcome and where success awaits.

So, from that day so long ago when my brain boiled in the African sun to now sitting in an office surrounding by journals, books, research data, and other mainstays of an academician I find myself thinking that the discipline itself and the people within the field of horticulture have been very good to me these last 15 years.  I hope that I, as a practitioner of horticulture, can convey it to others as well as it was conveyed to me.

Eric T. Stafne

Assistant Extension Professor and Fruit Crops Specialist

Mississippi State University

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