Agriculture Dean Back in a Good, if Drought-Stricken, Place

U. of California Regents

Helene Dillard
March 17, 2014

Helene Dillard, who in late January became dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California at Davis, is grateful that cellphones and portable computers didn’t exist in the 1960s.

Back then, when her family ventured out on road trips away from their home in San Francisco, she was free to gaze out the window at fecund valleys and to begin observing how farmers do what they do.

"My interest in agriculture came about through an interest in fishing," says Ms. Dillard, who is 58. Her family’s vacations were to fishing spots around the state, including to farming areas of the Central Valley and the foothills farther east. There, the city kid got hooked on the land.

Her new appointment is a homecoming after 30 years in New York State. She ended up there after first obtaining a degree in the biology of natural resources at the University of California at Berkeley, and then master’s and doctoral degrees from Davis. In Davis, while riding a bus on a field trip, she fell into conversation with a plant pathologist who recruited her to do research on lettuce rot, a fungal disease of a key state crop.

Well before she had completed doctoral work on plant pathology, Ms. Dillard had become a full-fledged enemy of what she calls "plant rots, spots, and wilts," not only in lettuce but also in snap beans, dry beans, tomatoes, corn, and cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables. Working with farmers, she learned the value of outreach by scientists through the Cooperative Extension System, a partnership between agricultural colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Her interest in plant pathology took her to Cornell University, where she eventually worked for more than a decade as director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, until Davis invited her home. Throughout, she has continued to devote a hearty portion of her work week to research, an endeavor that has taken her around the globe and gained her a worldwide reputation as an expert in her field. In her leisure time, she enjoys catch-and-­release fly-fishing with her husband and son.

In Ms. Dillard, Davis found "someone who understands and appreciates the importance of the research," someone who can "reach outward to solve stakeholder problems," says Michael Dale Lairmore, its dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, who with a colleague led a committee that identified the four leading candidates from 300 applicants.

Ms. Dillard says she "always kept my eyes open for an opportunity to return to California," but the clincher was Davis’s wealth of both scholarship and outreach to help California’s agricultural community deal with its challenges. Climate change has frightened farmers, so her colleagues are constantly working to identify or develop drought-resistant crops and to manage water supply to plants, animals, and people. Her position places her in charge of 330 faculty members, who specialize in areas of research like watersheds, agricultural sustainability, healthful food, and food and wine science. They also teach 5,800 undergraduate students in 29 majors, and a thousand graduate students in 45 groups and programs.

"The other urgent area I see," Ms. Dillard says, "is making sure that we’re putting leaders into the pipeline for all the commodities we grow in the state." Among the booming number of applicants to the agricultural college’s courses are first-generation farmers, aspiring family farmers, managers of large farms, and directors of industrial food-science and marketing programs. Animal science remains very popular, while more newly popular courses bring social-science research to bear on such challenges as the state’s perennially limited water supply. There, Ms. Dillard sees hopeful signs—"open ears, new ideas, not just for reservoirs, but for all the ways we can capture and reuse water."

Because the college is such a prominent center of agricultural research and industry support, its dean will often get requests to help shape state policies and practices. "Absolutely," says Ms. Dillard. "My first day on the job, I met with various commodity groups, all looking to our college for solutions to such challenges as drought, invasive species, even labor issues. Our ag business and economics people are constantly called on to contribute to discussions in Sacramento," the state capital.

Ms. Dillard begins to list the college’s priorities and how she will tackle them. And then one question makes her stop and ponder: What is it like to be a highly placed woman in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men?

"The other day," says Ms. Dillard, "I was with faculty and other folks in the equine area, and everyone in the barn except one person was a female." Not just in the study of small animals but for large animals as well, she notes, "women are becoming more common."