Friday, January 15, 2016

SNRE profiles: Bob Van Veldhuizen retires

Bob Van Veldhuizen

As a teenager working on his grandfather’s Iowa dairy farm, Bob Van Veldhuizen shoveled cow manure onto an overhead track, which carried it out of the barn.

His grandfather told him, “If you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life, go to college.”

Heeding that advice, Bob enrolled in 1970 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where his father, Phil Van Veldhuizen, was a math professor. Don Dinkel hired the student at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm to work on horticultural projects. Duties included shoveling cow manure, which was sterilized and used as an ingredient in Dinkel’s soil mixes.

Fortunately, Bob Van Veldhuizen’s job duties expanded far beyond that during the 45 years he worked at the farm, including 10 years as a student and temporary worker and more than 35 years as full-time research technician.

Bob stands in a field of Bebral rye at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.
He has worked on vegetable and fruit variety trials, forest reforestation projects, and soils and agronomic crop research. For the past 35 years, he coordinated fieldwork on agronomic research plots in Fairbanks, Palmer and Delta Junction. Working with SNRE Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang and graduate students, he has done everything from planting, harvesting and field clearing to lab work. He has also taught soils labs for the school for more than 30 years.

Van Veldhuizen says he liked everything about his job. “It’s challenging. It’s fun. It’s interesting.”

He has particularly enjoyed the research on agronomic crops, teaching soils labs and answering questions from individuals about soil fertility in different regions, from the panhandle to the Brooks Range. For the past three years, he has worked on soil fertility requirements for peonies.

Although Van Veldhuizen officially retired on Dec. 31, he hopes to continue working summers with Zhang on research relating to agronomic crops and soils. Red spring wheat cultivar crosses developed by a Washington State University doctoral student are still being tested to find the best cross that matures early and is shatter resistant.

 “We’re trying to finalize something,” he said.

They will also begin work with another WSU graduate student this summer on testing new Ingal crosses with Scandinavian wheat varieties.

Agronomists Van Veldhuizen has worked with include Frank Wooding, Charlie Knight, Steve Sparrow and, most recently, Zhang.  Over the years, he has helped with research on barley, wheat, rye, canola, mustard, triticale, bromegrass, quinoa and other crops. He and Professor Charlie Knight co-authored AFES Bulletin 111 about agronomic crop varieties in Alaska, and he and Zhang are completing an update to that bulletin. Bulletin 116, which will be published this spring and includes research-based recommendations for growing agronomic crops.

Zhang has worked with Van Veldhuizen for 12 years and says he is very dedicated and professional and does everything well. Students like his labs and he has been invaluable to the agronomic program. “As long as way we have a plan, he can make it happen in a flawless way,” said Zhang.

Retired SNRE Interim Dean Steve Sparrow, who worked with Van Veldhuizen for 30 years, also offered praise. “Bob was always a joy to work with because of his sometimes goofy, but often subtle humor, his strong work ethic, and his great knowledge of Alaska, soils, agriculture, forestry and other topics,” Sparrow wrote. “I would often see him in the lab or in the field early in the morning or in the evening after everyone else had called it a day. He is well known for his efforts to help students, even if it sometimes meant meeting with them in the hallway or after hours. He was certainly an asset to SNRE and UAF, and I hope he stays involved with UAF in some capacity even in retirement.”

Van Veldhuizen plans to continue work on a textbook for a beginning soils class focused on northern climates. He envisions it as a simple textbook for a distance-delivered class. He also hopes to do a little more gardening. He’s already agreed to speak at three conferences this winter, including a peony conference in Homer, the Delta Farm Forum and the Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

Bob Van Veldhuizen adds instructions for a soils lab.

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