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Forest Ecologist Abrams Retires from Penn State after 35 Years
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 06/22/2022

Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology and physiology and the Nancy and John Steimer Professor of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, will retire at the end of June as one of the world's leading forest ecologists.

Over his 35-year career in the College of Agricultural Sciences, he has published 175 referred journal articles, and the journal PLOS One ranked him as the fifth most cited forest ecologist worldwide.

His most cited research papers include "Fire and the Development of Oak Forests," published in BioScience in 1992, and "The Demise of Fire and 'Mesophication' of Forests in the Eastern United States," with former graduate student Greg Nowacki, now regional ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, also published in BioScience, in 2008.

These papers are considered to be fundamental to the understanding to how oak forests dominated for thousands of years and what factors, including prescribed fire, are needed to sustain these keystone species well into the future.

"Dr. Abrams is one of the most highly cited and influential forest ecologists of our time," said Brad Cardinale, department head, Ecosystem Science and Management. "His work detailing the role of fire and other disturbances in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems has been a game-changer for management."

Thanks to Abrams' research, added Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, we understand that fire suppression during the Smokey Bear era has had much more influence on tree composition in eastern U.S. forests than climate change.

"Marc has been a powerful voice in recognizing the profound role that Indigenous peoples played in fire and vegetation dynamics, not only in the eastern U.S. but worldwide," Roush said. "Over his long career, Marc has been responsible for helping to shape the conversation in his discipline."

Abrams has served on the editorial boards for five top scientific journals, including Ecology and Ecological Monographs, Canadian Journal of Forest Research, Tree Physiology, Trees, and Tree Structure and Function. He also has been a member of many National Science Foundation grant panels, participating in NSF-sponsored workshops and the foundation's Vegetation Classification Committee, which produced a standards manual for best practices in that field.

He received four fellowships to visit Japan -- each for two to three months -- for teaching and research in forest ecology and tree physiology. He was a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Ecological Research at Kyoto University in Japan in 2017 and a senior visiting researcher at the Forest Research Institute, Hokkaido Research Organization, in Bibai, Japan, in 2019.

Abrams received the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award presented by The Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists, announced at the sixth annual Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference. He has given more than 100 invited talks at scientific meetings and seminar series, including over 50 international talks in more than 30 countries. In addition, the College of Agricultural Sciences awarded him the 2002 Alex and Jessie C. Black Award for Excellence in Research.

His biggest joy as a researcher, Abrams said, has come from working with his graduate students at Penn State, most of whom have gone on to have successful careers in forest research and forest management in academia or government agencies.

"In the field of tree-ring science, my students and I discovered new methods for detecting canopy disturbance events from tree-ring records, and through numerous applications of these methods, we were better able to understand the long-term dynamics, fire history and compositional changes in mature and old-growth forests," he said. "We developed new methodologies for identifying stand dynamics patterns within the tree-ring record."

Abrams and his graduate students were some of the first researchers to develop methods for differentiating increases in tree-ring growth caused by stand dynamics versus climatic events. When the eminent tree ring scientist Ed Cook included the Nowacki and Abrams radial growth averaging technique into his tree-ring software, this methodology became broadly available to tree-ring researchers around the world and was quickly adopted as the foremost method for detecting canopy disturbances. Dendrochronology methodologies from Abrams' lab have become integral within forest ecology for understanding forest stand dynamics.

Abrams noted that he is most proud of his 40-year marriage to his wife, Sylvie, and their three sons -- Aron, Jason and Dylan -- along with their wives and their children.

"My 35 years at Penn State have been a total joy, and I never seriously considered leaving here," he said. "The campus environment and life in State College, which was a small town when we arrived but not so much anymore, and Happy Valley was as great as we could ever hope for. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. Thank you, Penn State, for giving me a wonderful career and life for me and my family."


Extension Expands Resources for Growers at Produce Auctions

Penn State Extension is expanding a program that offers educational kiosks at produce auctions across the state. These kiosks provide growers with timely, relevant information on disease and pest identification and management, invasive species, and food safety.

Beth Gugino, professor of vegetable pathology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, and her colleagues on the vegetable, small fruit and mushroom extension team, have guided the development and implementation of this program.

Pennsylvania has 16 wholesale produce auction locations where growers can sell in-season produce, flowers and other goods in bulk to local grocery chains, farm market stores and independent retailers.

This year, Penn State Extension will add three new kiosks to serve a total of 13 auctions across the state, including the Belleville Livestock Auction.

"In the past, buyers would have to go from farm to farm to purchase large amounts of produce, primarily from Amish and Mennonite growers," Gugino said. "With the auctions, everything is in one place. They are an important market for growers who are not wholesaling directly to large retailers."

The auctions start in the spring with bedding plants, and some continue to sell products such as pumpkins and Christmas trees into the winter months.

"A lot of our team members will go to these auctions because it's a good touchpoint in terms of meeting with growers and getting a sense of the issues in that particular production region," Gugino said.

Most of the growers are Amish and Mennonite, she explained.

"This community does not access technology the same way that other growers with broadband access would," Gugino said, noting that the kiosks provide a way to distribute current information about pest and disease management.

"The Amish and Mennonite communities play a major role in the vegetable-production industry across Pennsylvania," she said. "Making sure that they have access to the same information as those who utilize online resources is important to ensure that they can continue to produce crops, not only to support their families, but also to continue to support Pennsylvania's agriculture industry."

Initial funding for the project came from the Plant Health Resource Center, which is part of the Ag Resource Centers initiative between Penn State and the state Department of Agriculture. Penn State Extension continues to support the endeavor.

Glass-enclosed panels on the kiosks allow information to be displayed and updated easily. Informational pamphlets are available for growers to take home. A few years ago, the team added lending libraries to some of the produce auctions for growers to borrow hard-copy resources.

Each year, the team designs five or six new posters based on issues they see in the field. This year saw new posters on cucurbit viruses, rust on sweet corn, strawberry crown-root diseases, high-soluble salt levels in high tunnel soils, the Food Safety Modernization Act, and postharvest winter squash rot. The posters are designed to enable the team to update or reuse them as needed.

"Some topics are relevant for the whole season, while others are only a problem at certain times," said Bob Pollock, horticulture extension educator based in Indiana County. "We rotate the posters in and out depending on the topic and when it's relevant."

Another new feature is the "PA Produce Grower" newsletter distributed every other week that summarizes issues extension educators are seeing on produce farms and greenhouses across the state. The newsletter covers production issues related to insects, diseases and plant nutrition and consists of one sheet of paper with information printed on both sides. Each issue appears on different colored paper to help growers recognize a new edition.

The resources have expanded this year to include more information on postharvest and food-safety considerations.

"Rather than focusing strictly on pests, we're including other production-related issues as well," Gugino said.

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