Montana State University

Dale Schuler’s leadership inspires MSU’s first endowed plant sciences chair

July 23, 2014 -- Lori K. Cox, MSU Alumni Foundation

With help from alumni like Dale Schuler, above, Montana producers have raised more than $1 million toward the Montana Plant Sciences Chair, the first endowed chair in the history of the MSU College of Agriculture. Photo by John Godwin.   High-Res Available

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Dale Schuler stood at his kitchen window deep in thought, gazing across the booming range of prairie heavy with stubble from the past year’s wheat crop. His wife, Margie Schmit, paused to wish him a great day, only to hear him complain about the current state of affairs in agriculture. That was back in the fall of 1991 when exports were shrinking at an alarming rate, and the price per bushel of wheat seemed doomed to rest at a miserable $2.78. All of this was not a good forecast for a young farmer with a business to run. Her simple reply was, “Why don’t you do something about it?”

Coming from a long line of MSU family members (his father, mother and brothers all attended MSU), Schuler, who graduated from MSU in 1982, had a thirst for the analytical side of business and wasn’t too interested in leadership positions while in school. With his MSU degree in hand, he returned quietly to his family operation 25 miles out of Carter, Mont., in the heart of what’s known as Montana’s Golden Triangle. He married Margie in 1984, and they raised two girls, one currently studying at MSU and the other at the University of Montana Western. All that time, he was a member of the Montana Grain Growers Association (MGGA). And on a cold November day in 1991, he made a decision to run for the MGGA board.

“Maybe it’s just because I have a passion for our industry, and I realize it takes a lot of dedication, perseverance and persistence to make positive changes,” Schuler said, remembering back to that time. “I am a reluctant leader. Margie had to ask me a couple times to get after it.”

Schuler earned a slot as MGGA secretary in 1996 and took over as MGGA president in 1999.

“Times were tough – margins were so tight,” Schuler recalled. “We focused on issues like profitability, trade policy and transportation.”

Under Schuler’s leadership, the MGGA established statewide listening sessions.

“We had to listen to what producers wanted, and at the same time improve the grassroots support of our organization,” he added.

As Schuler’s leadership grew, so did his fan base. Since the MGGA vice president and president hold a seat on the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) board, Schuler’s colleagues asked him to run for secretary-treasurer of NAWG. He won, and eventually became national president of that organization in 2006. Schuler is proud to join a growing number of strong Montana leaders in this capacity, including Gary Broyles of Rapelje and current NAWG President Bing VonBergen of Moccasin.

Leadership on so many farming issues required a heavy time commitment, but the Schuler farm commanded a much greater obligation with its own challenges. Drought, chronic weed invasions, and plant diseases like fungal stripe rust were consistent challenges. As important as policy and international trade issues were to Schuler, he was plagued by the thought that Montana needed much more crop science research to solve pressing problems.

“It’s odd, but problems have made me a more efficient manager,” said Schuler with a funny twist to his smile. “I’ve had to focus on productivity rather than activity. Through my lifetime of farming and the successful people I’ve met, I can share that information with others.”

Schuler emphasized that sometimes you have to be the one to make something happen, reluctant or not.

“I work really hard at getting people to come together in a team approach,” he said. “It’s all about motivating the people involved toward a common goal.”

Schuler’s many friends, earned throughout his tenure as a Montana leader, were also troubled that there wasn’t more funding for research in crop science.

“It was clear from conversations with our neighbors, suppliers and contacts at our local MSU ag research centers that funding was a huge problem,” Schuler said.

Meanwhile, a small monster was buzz-sawing its way into every neighbor’s profits across a 200-mile radius. The wheat stem sawfly is a huge economic pest for Montana wheat growers. Wheat is the largest crop in Montana, with 2013 revenues coming in at $1.3 billion, and the impact of a pest like sawfly (which can starve $100,000 in revenue from a single farm’s harvest) is tremendous. It’s a bug that saws through the base of a wheat stem in untimely fashion before harvest, making it almost impossible to salvage yields. MSU is the national leader in sawfly research, but a sustainable and adequate funding supply has inhibited solid progress in eradicating the pest.

“Some small funding had been raised to help with research,” Schuler said. “But with federal and state funding sources drying up, we knew it was going to take a lot more money to create a perpetual source of support.”

Schuler, current president of the Montana Grains Foundation (the fundraising arm of MGGA), said they made an important decision: partner with MSU and the MSU Alumni Foundation to establish a permanent research endowment. With advice from former College of Agriculture Dean Jeff Jacobsen, the group focused on a greater purpose that would encompass all plant science challenges. They began crafting a plan for the Montana Plant Sciences Chair, the first in the history of the MSU College of Agriculture, located within the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology.

With an ambitious goal of reaching $5 million in support by 2018, the all-volunteer board of the Montana Grains Foundation hit the road in October of 2013, joined by MSU Alumni Foundation staff. They reached the first $1 million by late October and are fast approaching the $2 million mark, entirely supported by Montana growers.

“Producer response has been phenomenal,” Schuler said. “Farmers really see the need for the research to be done. When they realized how committed MSU was to them – to their livelihoods – it made a hugely positive impact.”

Schuler said that most producers were surprised when MSU President Waded Cruzado announced at the 2012 MGGA Convention that, if growers could work together to raise the $2 million necessary for a new endowed chair, she’d provide the needed university funds to help fill this new distinguished faculty role.

A soon-to-be-launched second fundraising phase will engage corporate support.

Schuler has high praise for the group of volunteers working for the Montana Plant Sciences Chair.

“These are leaders in their communities and state, some nationally,” he said. “No one is there for their own purposes – they are there for their neighbors and families. They have the attitude that it can be done.”

Undoubtedly Dale Schuler’s leadership has led to great changes for Montana and MSU. This man whom exudes humility and a gentle nature in every conversation, has learned to step beyond reluctance.

“Just imagine if we could someday address gluten intolerance or a totally drought-resistance plant. We think the chair will do great things for our industry and for the university, and great things for the Montana economy,” he said.

Contact: Lori K. Cox, (406) 994-4595 or lori.cox@msuaf.org