From Cucumbers to Students

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Robin Fruth-Dugstad knows a thing or two about plants.

Chances are if you’ve taken one of her horticulture classes, the instructor has shared the story about her time as a cucumber researcher, studying the complex inner workings of the Cucumis sativus.

“It was very interesting,” Fruth-Dugstad says with a laugh. “My funding came from the Wisconsin Pickle Packers Association. They wanted them a certain shape so they’d fit in the jars (a certain way). It is kind of an ice breaker when I tell students I used to be a cucumber breeder.”

Back then, Fruth-Dugstad was working on the first cucumbers that would set fruit all at once, and a plant that would produce all female flowers, so that you get a plant full of cucumbers (males don’t produce the edible flowers).

There, she did something along the lines of genetic engineering, utilizing new science for the time to map the genome of a cucumber.

This kind of research experience has been a boon for the instructor. She’s able to bring her real-life work and experiments into the classroom.

But her time as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison did not last long.

She moved back to the Rochester area to be a head grower at a local greenhouse. She needed a change.

“I was spending more time in the lab than my whole idea of going into horticulture in the first place was,” she says. “I guess I just wanted to get back outside.”RCTC_Horticulture_1087

It makes sense. Growing up, her dad, grandmother, and great aunt kept large gardens. It helped her fall in love with the outdoors, and decide to pursue either forestry or horticulture.

She was contacted by Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC), then Riverland Technical College, to teach a few classes as a part-time instructor.

“The first three years I wasn’t sure I was going to continue doing this,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t know. I hadn’t ever pictured myself teaching; I thought I was going to do research, probably.”

But the college kept giving her more classes until she became full time, and 22 years later, she’s still here, and has been in charge of the horticulture program for about a decade.

During her tenure, the facility – formerly a tiny classroom full of 32 students – has doubled in size. Now there are two classrooms for the same number of students. The old lab space was the old culinary arts kitchen – now the lab is a 5,000 square-foot greenhouse. Students also learn in a 1,000 square-foot hoop house, and a two-acre outdoor lab.

The facilities help Fruth-Dugstad with teaching a variety of classes – her favorite part about instructing students.

Her favorite classes tend to change with the time of year.

“This time of year I enjoy my greenhouse crop production class because I’m in the greenhouse and it feels like spring or summer,” she says.

Her overall favorite course is plant propagation.

“I also like the plant taxonomy classes, though they tend to be the tougher courses for students.”

Horticulture is more than classroom and lab time.

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Students get to head outdoors quite a bit and take part in service projects around Rochester. The program grows perennials for the Rochester Garden and Flower Club, who then sell them, with the proceeds returning as scholarships for students.

Another project that began last year is one where the students grow plants for hanging baskets at Soldiers Field in Rochester.

It all leads to a comprehensive education – a necessity in a market in need of more workers ready to hit the ground running.

“There’s plenty of jobs out there,” Fruth-Dugstad says, explaining how calls and emails come from people throughout the Midwest, not just locally. “There’s definitely a shortage of labor out there in horticulture.”

That includes golf course management and landscaping jobs.

But that doesn’t mean that students can’t go on to learn even more, and maybe one day study Cucumis sativus or Convallaria majalis.

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