Northern Michigan's Next Gen Farm Girl Nikki Rothwell

An A-List project: The center employs the only tart cherry breeding specialist in the nation, Dr. Amy Iezzonni, who is attempting to breed a tree naturally resistant to cherry leaf spot—the major disease cherry growers fight every year. Success would mean less spraying, a guidepost of center research overall. Another: Rothwell is experimenting with new dwarf cherry trees (a size similar to what has become the norm in apple orchards) that will be part of what people at the center call “the cherry orchard of the future.”

Rothwell participates in other research projects as well, but equally important, she is charged with making sure that projects designed by her colleagues down at the MSU campus are being executed appropriately during stretches when they are not on location.

“She knows what good research is, so she can look at experiments with a critical eye, and that’s what’s needed to move things ahead,” says Dr. George Sundin, a plant pathologist at MSU and a frequent collaborator of Rothwell’s.

It’s easy to see how MSU expertise in tart cherries helps Northwest Michigan orchardists, who grow 50 percent of the nations’ tart cherry harvest. But what’s less visible is how the research benefits MSU. For campus-based researchers, “If we didn’t have the center, we couldn’t get the big research grants, and then we wouldn’t have the researchers, and then we wouldn’t have the work appearing in publications, and all that is what keeps us at the forefront of cherry research,” Sundin says.

Rothwell grew up a Kingsley farm girl, 20 miles south of Traverse City, her parents having moved there from southern Michigan after her dad landed a job as a teacher in the Kingsley school. They bought a 120-acre farm and ran about 40 head of cattle. “I always loved living on the farm,” Rothwell says. “One of the things I loved most was hay season. My grandparents from both sides would be there, and my grandma on Dad’s side was Southern, so she had that kind of Southern cooking thing. And my aunts and uncles from Detroit would come up, and we’d have these huge dinners. Sometimes my mom would help cook, but mostly she was baling hay.”

Rothwell headed off to Western Michigan University as a biology major and ended up taking “an awesome entomology class.” She liked the camaraderie that seemed woven into the culture of bug collecting and identification. And for her, it was just plain fun. “My mom tells me I was into bugs forever,” she says. She landed a summer internship at the Horticultural Research Center and loved that too. “I told my boss, Gary Thornton, that I was going to come back one day and take his job,” she says.

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