Montana State University

MSU alum Norm Asbjornson donates $2 million to MSU’s Montana Plant Sciences Chair

May 30, 2017 -- By Jenny Lavey for the MSU News Service

Montana State University alumnus and supporter Norm Asbjornsen. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University and the MSU Alumni Foundation announced today that longtime university supporter Norm Asbjornson has given $2 million in support of the Montana Plant Sciences Chair, the first endowed chair in the MSU College of Agriculture. The chair will formally be named the Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair in honor of Asbjornson’s hometown of Winifred, where he grew up during the Depression.

Asbjornson’s gift brings the university to within $200,000 of its $5 million goal for the endowment. The gift also marks the beginning of the fourth year of the endowment’s five-year fundraising plan. MSU plans to meet the remaining $200,000 through private development, according to Kevin Brown, senior director of development with the MSU Alumni Foundation.

The Montana Plant Sciences Chair was conceived five years ago, when the Montana Grains Foundation and dozens of other Montana farmers rallied together to invest $1 million from their own pockets for grains-focused research at MSU. In the following two years, an additional $1.8 million was raised from Montana producers and agribusiness.

“The investment from Montana producers in this chair has been remarkable,” said Charles Boyer, MSU vice president of agriculture.

Farmers across the state continue to battle pests like the wheat stem sawfly and other abiotic stressors that damage wheat yields and threaten a sustainable agricultural economy, and Montana wheat producers must be vigilant in keeping their crops healthy and viable, Boyer added.

MSU – the state’s oldest and largest land-grant institution – joined the grassroots call to bring a world-renowned scientist to the university who would help Montana grain growers remain competitive and sustainable through research tailored specifically for Montana’s current and future challenges in production agriculture. Together, Montana’s agricultural community and MSU challenged themselves to raise $5 million dollars in five years to bring a permanent endowed plant science chair to MSU.

The chair has since grown into a vision for expanding statewide support for Montana’s grain growers with the help of MSU faculty and the Montana Grains Foundation, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, Montana Grain Growers Association and a multitude of agribusinesses and grain producers.

Asbjornson, a 1960 mechanical engineering graduate from the MSU College of Engineering, said the future of food is in the hands of farmers. With that, he added, comes responsibility.

“We have a responsibility to support and invest in programs that can have enormous economic (impact) for Montana’s agricultural economy,” he said. “MSU understands how integral producers are to applied research for the state, and I’m excited to join the Montana agricultural community in support of this endowment.”

Asbjornson added that climatic, water, disease and pest threats will continue to stress Montana’s top crop, and that funds must be invested in technological research that produces top-quality wheat genetics for Montana growers.

Boyer said the endowment will allow the current Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair, Hikmet Budak, MSU professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, to remain competitive in an integrative research program for Montana grains and find ways to strengthen the vitality of Montana wheat. Budak, who works closely with national and international advisory councils comprised of Montana farmers, agribusinesses, non-profit organizations and grower representative groups, said Asbjornson’s recent investment marks an important step for the chair’s future.

“The enormous generosity of Mr. Asbjornson will ultimately transform the ability of Montana grain growers to remain sustainable and profitable, from research provided by the state’s cornerstone land-grant institution, because it is led by and has partnered with Montana producers,” Budak said. “On behalf of MSU and our important partnership with Montana producers and Mr. Asbjornson, we’re honored to name this cooperative chair after the agricultural legacy that Mr. Asbjornson will undoubtedly leave. I’m honored to serve as the first Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair and look forward to meaningful successes alongside all who have given to this program.”  

Budak’s lab focuses on innovative wheat genetics and genomics in response to pests and abiotic stress while adding nutrient value to wheat. Most recently, Budak, along with a team of 14 international scientists, successfully sequenced and mapped the genome – or complete genetic code – of durum wheat. Budak`s team is currently working on sequencing DNA and RNA code of a Montana winter wheat cultivar, Yellowstone, with an international consortium. Budak said the data is the first step to understanding which genes are present in the local wheat genome. Harnessing this knowledge to produce higher-quality Montana durum and bread wheat lines will also increase resistance to pests, environmental stress and disease, he added.

Research advancements have major implications for Montana wheat farmers, according to Lola Raska, executive vice-president of Montana Grains Foundation (MGF). Raska said the endowment is a lifetime commitment to Montana grain producers.

“MGF has worked hard over the last four years to take a vision to a reality,” Raska said. “This has been a collaborative effort by our farmers, their organizations and supporting businesses, and it’s inspiring we’re so close to full endowment, thanks to Mr. Asbjornson’s investment and confidence in Montana agriculture.”

Dale Schuler, MGF president, said the endowment’s success was always meant to benefit the industry by way of being anchored to Montana farmers.

“For our donors, this project has been about investing in Montana agriculture,” said Schuler. “We know that the collaborative nature of the endowment is an advantage for Montana farmers, and MSU has proven adept at connecting research to our at-large society.”

Gary Broyles, owner of Broyles Farms, Inc. in Rapelje, said he believes the chair’s research impact will transfer to other areas of food production.                                                                                       

“What’s wonderful about a program like this is that it has every potential to transcend beyond grains research,” Broyles said. “When you have the building blocks at the genome-sequencing level, it provides a pathway to other areas like nutrition and producing protein for a global food supply, so that the foundational programs in agriculture are in tandem with another.”

Asbjornson, who grew up in a one-room, 800-square-foot house, is the founder and CEO of AAON, a NASDAQ-traded heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) manufacturer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with annual revenues of $400 million and more than 1,800 employees. In 2004, he received an honorary doctorate in engineering from MSU and the Montana Board of Regents.

Asbjornson has funded five endowments with the MSU Alumni Foundation, four of which are scholarship endowments and one that focuses on rural education initiatives through the Winifred Asbjornson Rural Education Initiatives Fund.

In addition to Asbjornson, names of the supporters of the Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair can be found at msuaf.org/pscdonors.

Contact: Kevin Brown, senior development director, MSU Alumni Foundation, kevin.brown@msuaf.org or (406) 994-4815

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