Brenneman works to develop better disease management programs
By Sarah Turner
University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
TIFTON — Working for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Tim Brenneman has a knack of planting smiles on farmers' faces.
Growing up in Broadway, Va., a small town surrounded by farms, Brenneman developed a passion for agriculture. Like other small town boys, Brenneman enjoyed hunting and fishing. But even as a child, Brenneman's interest in fungi was apparent. He collected wild mushrooms for family meals.
"It was just more of a natural interest that I've always had in the natural world around me, whatever form of agriculture, or just being out in the woods," said Brenneman, a plant pathologist on the UGA Tifton Campus.
Brenneman received his B.A. in biology at Goshen College in Indiana where he was first introduced to plant pathology. "I always liked fungi and realized you could study them in the context of agriculture and how they affect our food supply. It brought together a lot of interests that I had, and gave me a vision for what I wanted to do in my life."
He received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from Virginia Tech working on peanut diseases and was offered a UGA faculty position — the only job he ever interviewed for.
"I was always told that whatever crop you want to work on, you should go to the state where it's the biggest crop there is; so the UGA peanut/pecan position is a good one to be in," Brenneman said. "The university and commodity groups have been very supportive, and there is an excellent group of collaborators to work with here in Tifton, including a lot of colleagues in private industry. I can't imagine a better place to be if you like to do applied work in agriculture."
Learn more about Brenneman's discovery at pecantruffles.org.
When Brenneman first came to Tifton he accomplished one of the most gratifying achievements of his professional career – he discovered a new fungus on pecan trees in Georgia called truffles.
Truffles grow underground on the roots of trees, and are highly valuable commodities in the gourmet food industry. Sold in Europe for thousands of dollars per pound, they are among the most expensive foods in the world. While the ones found in Georgia are less expensive than European truffles, farmers have unknowingly been disposing of hidden gems that could fetch upwards of $300 per pound.
Thanks to Brenneman and his colleagues, there is now a small market for pecan truffles in Georgia, and pecan seedlings with truffles on the roots are being produced.
"Being able to do something like that as a part of your job, what more could you ask for?" Brenneman said.
While the truffle discovery was one that stands out to Brenneman, his 26 years with UGA have proved to be equally productive. He spends much of his time improving disease control programs on peanuts and pecans.
"When I started in 1986 the only fungicides we had on peanuts were Bravo and PCNB, and we were losing a lot of yield to soil-borne diseases. We now have a wide range of highly effective fungicides in different chemical classes, and I've been able to work with the manufacturers to develop use patterns for all of them. Introducing night sprays for peanuts has further increased our ability to control white mold. Disease management has been completely revolutionized during this time period, and it has been great to be part of it."
At UGA, Brenneman is grateful for the people he works with and his experiences as a professor; however, knowing he has helped a farmer understand a problem is what truly fulfills him.
"That probably is the most rewarding aspect of what I do, knowing that I've been able to help somebody to solve an issue that they are having trouble with, and helping them do their job and stay in business," Brenneman said.
The ultimate goal for Brenneman and his colleagues is to develop better disease management programs for farmers. Currently, he is working with plant breeders by looking at resistant varieties as a way to manage disease.
"The breeders are always developing new varieties, and we are looking very aggressively for resistance genes to put in those varieties," Brenneman said. "We have seen some remarkable increases in yield potential, but still rely heavily on fungicides to control diseases. We are now trying to incorporate much better levels of disease resistance in these high-yielding varieties so they need less fungicide."
When Brenneman isn't working to improve Georgia agriculture, he enjoys spending time with his family. He and his wife Joy are the parents of four teenagers, so he is busy with Boy Scout meetings, camping trips, church activities and piano lessons. When it comes to relaxation, though, Brenneman still enjoys a good morning out in the woods.
"As far as my recharge time, if I can go out and sit in a deer stand and have some time to think, that's what I really enjoy other than my family life," Brenneman said.
From hunting for mushrooms in Virginia to digging up truffles in Georgia, the outdoors have proven to be a way of life for Brenneman.
Published January 28, 2014