At the end, everybody claps. “That’s why I get paid the big bucks,” she says, laughing. And instantly she flips into administrator mode. The attendees have to fill out a form to prove they went to the class. “You get two credits for this,” she says as the forms pass down the rows. She scans the room. “Where are the pencils?” and goes searching for them like a bustling schoolteacher. Later, as each person hands her a form,  she looks the individual in the eye and says, “thank you!” like she’s receiving a gift.

The Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station … it’s a plain name, and when you drive past the plain one-story building perched on a beautiful hilltop along Leelanau’s Center Highway, you might easily overlook it. But the center, since its first plantings in 1980, has earned a high-profile reputation as a living laboratory conducting world-class orchard research, and researchers from around the planet have made pilgrimages here seeking advice. “They’ve come from more countries than I could ever remember,” says former center chief Jim Nugent. Even the top agriculture official in communist China visited once.

The center is also the educational center and social hub of Northwest Michigan’s orchard industry. And in times of trouble the center can be a political action hub, as in spring of 2012 when freakish weather wiped out the cherry crop, and cherry industry leaders convinced federal legislators and ag officials to visit, see the damage and learn about its causes. They also heard 120 farmers who crammed into the main meeting room to ask for disaster assistance and a federal crop insurance program for cherries. “There were more pickups than I’ve ever seen in Northern Michigan,” says Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute, a key supporter of the center. Adding color to the drama: “Most cherry growers drive red pickups—it was unbelievable.”

It’s Rothwell’s job to keep all that: keep the research relevant and respected, keep the educational programs sharp, and keep the social verve, despite the fact that funding to the center has been cut in half in the past decade as government budgets shrink … and shrink again.

For the most part, it was cherry farmers who donated the land and money for the building four decades ago (the only grower-owned of MSU’s four fruit stations), and so cherries have been the primary research focus over the decades. But as the region’s farmers have diversified, so too has the research, which now covers projects in grapes, hops, apples and more. This spring alone the center has about 40 research projects onsite and is conducting about an equal number at farms.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski