Oral history; Interview conducted with Rodney Foil on June 18 and 25, 2002 at Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University. Robert Rodney Foil was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1934. He received his B.S. (1956) and M.S. (1960) in Forestry at Louisiana State University and completed his PhD in Forestry at Duke University in 1965. Foil also served two years in the Army and was for a short period, an industrial forester in Georgia. Before coming to Mississippi State University (MSU) in 1969, Foil worked for Louisiana State University, first at the North Louisiana Hill Farm Experiment Station and then as a statewide extension specialist in forestry at the LSU Baton Rouge campus. he also received his B.S. and M.S. degrees. He served at MSU as Head of the Forestry Department (1969-1971), Associate Dean and Head of Forestry (1971-1973), Dean of Forestry (1973-1978) and associate director of MAFES (1973-1978), Director of Experiment Station (1978-1986), and Vice-President for the Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Veterinary Medicine from 1986 until his retirement in 1999. General topics covered in the interview include the impact of mechanization on agriculture, impact of computers on farming, biotechnology, the Mississippi catfish industry, freshwater shrimp research, aquaculture, the impact of privatization on farming operations, environmental issues in agriculture, and academic and social changes at MSU.
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CHARM Oral History Project Interview of: Dr. Rodney Foil June 18, 2002 and June 25, 2002 Interviewer: Dr. Michael Ballard Location: Stennis Montgomery Room, Mitchell Memorial Library Mississippi State University campus Dr. Michael Ballard: Ok, we will just start with part one of this format we are using and just give us, for the sake of the record, your background: where you were born, who you married, how many kids you got, we will just do the personal section in any order that you want to do it. Dr. Rodney Foil: Ok. My name is Rodney Foil. Officially by the army and others, Robert Rodney Foil. Currently live in Starkville, and have lived here since 1969. Married with two children--son, who is fortytwo, and a daughter who is forty. Both live out of state. I started out as a very very na�ve college student at LSU in 1952. Came from a middle-class family, and only one member of the remote family had ever gone to college. My dad's youngest brother had gone to LSU and majored in Forestry, so I did. I really didn't know that there were other things that they taught there at the time (laughter). But, I got a bachelors in Forestry in 1956, Masters in Forestry in 1960, and a doctorate in Forestry at Duke in 1965. At the completion of my bachelor's degree, I was drafted, served two years in the army during the Cold War. There really wasn't a whole lot going on in the army. But, I did serve in Texas and Alaska. I got an early out from the Army to come back and get a Masters degree. Had it not been for the opportunity to leave the army a little bit early, I would have probably gone back to being an industrial forester in Georgia, which was what I was doing when I was drafted. At any rate, after completing a Masters, I found that I could make more money with educational institutions than I could with industry at that particular time, so I went to work for LSU at an off campus research station in north Louisiana: The North Louisiana Hill Farm Experiment Station, which I joined at the instructors level in 1960. Stayed there until 1967, with a year off on sabbatical to get a doctorate at Duke. In 1967, I left the research arena and went to Baton Rouge main campus to become a statewide extensions specialist in forestry. Maintained that job for a couple of years, then was offered the opportunity to come here to Mississippi State as department head in the Department of Forestry. I came in October 1969. The reasons for coming to Mississippi State were interesting. Of course, like most people, it was a chance to make more money, and I had two young children at the time, preschool. I think one in the first grade. The princely salary of $12,000 a year, was offered to me to come here as a department head, which was a few thousand dollars more than I was making where I was as I recall. So that was the primary thing. Of course, it was a considerable promotion to come here as department head. Interestingly enough, even though I grew up in an adjoining state, I had never been on the Mississippi State campus until I came here for an interview. I was immediately struck by the very friendly campus, the high importance that the administration placed on the position that I was going to be taking. I was interviewed by the then president Bill Giles. I had worked at LSU for ten year, eleven years without every having met the president of LSU. MB: RF: That impressed you right away? Impressed me a lot. As a sideline, just to show you how university governance has changed, I came here and had dinner with the then Dean of the School of Forestry, Bob Klap. Then, the next morning, began my interview schedule. I interviewed with Dr. Jim Anderson, who was director of the experiment station; Dr. Louis Wise, who was Vice-President for Agriculture and Forestry; Dr. John Bettersworth, who was Vice-President for Academic Affairs; and Dr. Bill Giles, who was president. At three o'clock that afternoon, Dean Klap offered me the job. I did not meet a single faculty member (laughter) in the department that I was to be the head of. Although, I had met some of them previously. The interview process was a much more direct process in those days than it is today. Well, I think we got up to where you had been offered a job here at Mississippi State. Obviously, you accepted it. I did and never regretted it. Mississippi State and the state of Mississippi has been very very good to me. Could we talk a little bit about the Department of Forestry when you came here? How developed it was then and how it evolved under your leadership? Well, that is interesting and something that I very proud of. The history of forestry education and research here at Mississippi State MB: RF: MB: RF: is interesting because it mirrors an educational philosophy that this state has had and still has to some degree. Forests have been important in the economy and the life of Mississippians from the beginning. It's a forested state and has always been influenced greatly by forest industry and the people use the forest a lot. During the early years of scientific forestry in the United States, much of the research was done in Mississippi. The US Forest Service was active here. They had an experiment station in New Orleans that did most of its fieldwork in Mississippi. But, there was no Forestry School here. LSU started a professional forestry school in 1926. Through my time there in the early 50s, half the student body was from Mississippi. Yet, the state of Mississippi said we can't afford to have a forestry school. We will let Mississippians come to community college or Mississippi State for two years, and then the can transfer and go get a forestry degree somewhere else. That continued until 1954 when through pressure from the legislature actually, Mississippi State decided to create a four-year forestry program here. It's a ________ story, but I tend to believe it. The people in forestry who brought this change about succeeded because they told...err, got the legislature to say, that if Mississippi State does not put in a forestry school, we are going to authorize one at Southern. All of a sudden, Mississippi State decided they wanted a forestry school (laughter). That is a lot... MB: RF: That's believable. That is about what happens in Mississippi education, but at any rate, the first professional graduate from the forestry program was in 1956, which was the same year the I graduated from LSU in a class of thirty, fifteen of whom were from Mississippi. At the onset, and it was pretty hardscrabble. It was hard to find the money to really have a professional forestry school. Bob Klap was the founding dean. We had actually a Department of Forestry in the College of Agriculture. Then in 1961, couple of things happened that were of great significance. One, is that Dean Colvard came here as president of Mississippi State. He came from North Carolina State, where he had been Dean of the College of Agriculture. North Carolina State had a very very outstanding forestry program. He was supporting in that. He hired, as his Vice-President for Agriculture and Forestry, Bill Giles, who had been superintendent of the Stoneville Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville, and had as one of his closest closest friends, an individual named J.S. "Sid" McKnight, who was a research forester with the US Forest Service at Stoneville. Sid and his colleagues in forestry in the delta had convinced Dr. Giles of the importance of forestry. Dr. Giles was originally trained as a botanist before he becomes an agronomist and he liked the outdoors. At any rate, in 61, they began to commit to really building a forestry program. They created a School of Forestry in 66 with the transfer of the Wildlife Program from the Department of Zoology to the new School of Forestry. That transfer consisted of transferring one individual and two graduate students, Dr. Dale Arner? who had been a professor of zoology became head of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. They created a department from the Forest Products Utilization Laboratory that had been created in 1964. Dr. Warren Thompson had been hired to head this research organization and was just getting it started. The buildings were being completed when I cam in 69. So, the pieces were in place when I came here. We had the three departments created. The Forestry Department, which was the founding department, had twelve faculty members when I came--twelve professors. Wildlife and Fisheries, by then, had grown to two. Forest Products had three perhaps four faculty level people. But, some things had happened that really convinced me very early on that the future was quite bright. One is that in 1962, the Congress of the United States passed the McEntire-Stennis Forestry Research Act, which resulted in money being transferred to the states in 1964, but was earmarked and required to be spent on forest resources research. That resulted the beginning allocation to Mississippi was something like $50,000 out of a million and a half dollars nationally. But, it was enough to get the attention of the policymakers. It was enough to hire a professor, perhaps two at the time. It gave an impetus in the state legislature to really call into play the power of the forest interests in the state. So, beginning in 69, we were able to just ride a wave of public interest and economic understanding because the pulp and paper industry began to expand in Mississippi at the time. Weyerhaeuser Company came to the state. There were just a number of things that happened in the 70s that allowed us to develop. One of things that was asked in the questionnaire was what are some of my career highlights. One of those was that in 1976, when the Society of American Foresters came here to review us for accreditation. They had come in 1971, when I was very new here. They gave us provisional accreditation. One of the comments that they made that they considered negative was that the forestry program at Mississippi State was too responsive to the needs of Mississippi and the Mississippi forest industry (laughter). But, we did not take into account the _______ world and that we were not very cosmopolitan. I took that to be a great compliment. MB: I would think so. RF: Yet, we did...that meant they came back in five years. During that five-year period, we were successful in getting some appropriations from the legislature to expand the faculty, to expand the scope. Enrollment increased probably by a factor of doubling during that period. We got full unconditional accreditation in 1976. It was...the report was held in the president's conference room in Allen Hall. I remember when we walked out of there, Louis Wise, the Vice-President said he truly wished that Dr. Giles had been there to hear this because he had heard all the things that said we can's afford a good forestry school in Mississippi, therefore we should not have one (laughter). So, there has been a great change. Twelve faculty members when I came, six of those had the doctorate, six did not. The focus was entirely at the undergraduate level, they had given one Masters degree. Of course now, they have a very very well developed PhD program, very very well developed research program and perhaps equally important, they have got a very very broad subject matter coverage. Not just timber production forestry, which is still very very important, but a lot of environmental aspects, and the Wildlife and Fisheries' aspect. The Mississippi catfish industry came along in the 80s and built the fisheries portion of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department tremendously. So, the thirty years that I have been associated, even though I left the Forestry end of things in 1978, have been exciting to observe. There has been a lot of growth and a lot of positive things happen. You mentioned that they considered it a criticism that you were responsive to the state. How did...exactly how did the Forestry Department interact with tree farmers and industry in the state? I mean you do not have to get into complete detail, but what kind of programs you have? Did you meet with them periodically? How did that work? Well, there are a lot of fortunate things about it. The forestry community in Mississippi has been a very unified community during my time here in great contrast to the adjoining state of Louisiana. Where in Louisiana, the forest industry exists as one category, and the forest landowners exist as another category and they do not talk to each other. They have an antagonist thing and you have one organization for industry and another organization for private citizens. In Mississippi, there has been a great leadership factor in all segments--public and private pull together. The forestry faculty at Mississippi State has served leadership roles in that consortium of common interest. The Dean of Forestry School serves, by law, on the State Forestry Commission, which has got the state agencies, fire protection, and all of the regulatory MB: RF: activities as their responsibility. The State Forestry Association has the Dean, the Department Head, and the Vice-President ex officio members of their boards. The Professional Foresters in the state are probably eighty percent graduates of Mississippi State now, and they invite the faculty and the students for field trips and things of that nature. There are now in this state, county forestry associations in sixty-two of the counties I believe, and all of those are receiving leadership from the cooperative extension service from Mississippi State, which means that the forestry specialists and the extensions service, as well as, the forestry faculty are called on to come to the county forestry meetings and give talks and...So, it's a very close knit community. Not as close as it used to be. The world has changed now, but during the early years, there was a leadership group of twenty-five people perhaps, two or three of which would be from Mississippi State, that would be involved in positive public action that was taken--usually with a representative or two from the legislature. The supervisor of the US Forest Service national forests in this state, the state forester, and the chief forester for International Paper Company, Anderson Tully in the delta, and two or three others. MB: RF: Well, lets move on. You changed jobs in 1978, so lets talk about your new position. Right, just to fill in the gaps, I was department head in Forestry from 69 until 71. 71 to 73, I was associate dean and department head. Dean Klap was getting up in years, and he had lost his wife during that time and so, I was moved into the associate deans job and in many ways did a lot of the travel and things that Dean Klap could not do, or did not want to do. I became dean on his retirement in 1973. So, 73 to 78, I was dean of the Forestry School, which meant that the three departments, Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, and Forest Products reported to me. During that time, I also served as Associate Director of the Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station, now known as MAFES. Much to my surprise, in 1978, I was chosen to be director of the experiment station. It was surprising because at that time, there had only been one forester who had actually served as director as an agricultural experiment station and he got fired after the first nine months (laughter). There is not a whole lot of common ground between people in forestry and people in row crop agriculture. So, there were many who felt that a forester could not manage an experiment station, an agricultural experiment station. The same people who felt that an agriculturist certainly could manage a forestry program. MB: RF: Yeah, sure (laughs). But, at any rate, I became director of the experiment station in 1978 and was director of that unit from 78 to 86. Of course, one reason that I was able to do that, and I think reasonably successfully, was that the early seven years of my career were on a branch experiment station in Louisiana, where I was doing forestry research, but we also did beef cattle research, dairy cattle research, ag economics research, and ag crop research. With a seven person staff, seven scientist staff, you learned what everybody was doing. I learned the vocabulary of agriculture that made it possible for me to move in and at least get over the first hurdle in talking with pure agriculture people. I still have to give a great deal of credit to Louis Wise who had the courage to choose me. Because there were a lot of people on this campus who said that a forester just cannot do that job. Once again, times have changed. There was no search committee. There was no interviews. As a matter of fact, I was on a trip to North Carolina and came home and had a note to see Dr. Wise first thing in morning. I walked across the street from Dorman Hall to Lloyd Ricks, I ran into Walter Porter, who was associate director of the station, who said `congratulations, would you like my letter of resignation?' I said what do you mean? He says, `well you are the director and you out to chose your associate directors and I want you to know that I will resign if you want me to' (laughter). I said I don't even know that I am director, and I am sure not so stupid that I would want you to resign. But, that was the kind of man Walter Porter was. At any rate, I was able to serve as director of the experiment station from 78 to 86. It was some of the best of times and some of the worst of times. We suffered a lot of budget cuts beginning in 1981. We had to so a lot of different things. Some, I think good, some not at all good. At any rate in 1986, Dr. Wise retired and I replaced him as Vice-President for the Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Veterinary Medicine, which included the Experiment Station, the Extension Service, the then, College of Forestry Resources, the College of Agriculture, and the College of Veterinarian Medicine. I was fortunate to hold that job until June of 1999, when I took retirement and left others to do it. At the time that I moved into that Vice-Presidency, I cannot think of a more humbling experiences, because there had been only two people that held that job prior to me. One was William L. Giles, who was one of the most outstanding individuals that I have ever known. The other was Louis Wise, who equally was outstanding. So, I had some big shoes to fill, and got to participate in a lot of important and interesting things. MB: One thing that I think I would like for you to do...I think a lot of people in this state just don't appreciate or maybe just don't know how MAFES operates. You have obviously, the central location is here on campus, but you do have the branches out there. Why don't you just talk about how that whole network functions. Where the different stations are and how it operates. That's a very very good point Mike. It's amazing how many people on this very campus don't understand that the experiment station and the extension service make Mississippi State a statewide institution. In reality, both those organizations probably expend more of their resources off campus than they do on campus. They were not created...I will talk interchangeably about MAFES and MSU Extension. Although the experiment station was the first created. In 1888, the state of Mississippi accepted the provisions of the Hatch Act, which was a Federal deal that provided payments to the states to create agricultural research stations. Interestingly enough, the original author of that bill, the Hatch Act, was Senator George from Mississippi. He introduced it into the Congress in 1870-something. It did not get very far. Then Congressman Hatch from Iowa, I believe, finally got it passed. But, at any rate, it created at the land-grant institution Mississippi State, then ten years old, a federally supported experiment station to do fundamental research into agriculture--problems of the rural areas of the state. The state legislature had to accept that mission by passing a law creating the station. They had to appropriate matching money. So, here was the ten year old Mississippi State College actually, Mississippi A obviously, we don't have time to get into every little specific detail, at the changes in technology. What has been the greatest impact on Mississippi in general? And maybe beyond, because what happens here, happens elsewhere. It is mind-boggling to think of the changes and beyond that to try to think of what caused them, or think back to the things that have happened. Of course, agriculture, forestry, activities, enterprises that we have supported are part of the global economy and they behave--they respond to global changes. I am not sure many people of today realize the transformation that has taken place in the countryside of the state of Mississippi. Really not in my time necessarily, it was well underway in 1969. One statistic that has stuck in my mind very very deeply is that Leake County south of us, Carthage is the county seat, was one of the most heavily farmed counties in the state in the early years of this century; all small farms, people...Harperville, and Madden, and Lena, communities Walnut Grove...in 1946, there were fourteen high schools in Leake County, Mississippi. They played a basketball tournament every year that was beyond comprehension and I would have loved to have seen it. The whole county shut down and everybody came to wherever the tournament was. Those were community high schools that there were enough people with kids in a twenty-mile radius or less to support a high school. Leake County has two high schools now. Three maybe, two or three. I think they have two public and one private. I think is right. The exodus post-World War II from the family farm to industry, education, all the kind of things that people do, has completely changed the political, social, and enterprise activities in the state. Interestingly enough, we still produce as much cotton today as we did in 1930 or whenever the peak for cotton acreage in the state. Mississippi used to have ten million acres of cotton. We now have RF: MB: RF: a million acres of cotton, but we are producing the same number of bales on a million acres that we used to produce on ten. The same thing is true for any of the commodities that you wish to think about: dairy production, milk per cow is easily ten times what it was prior to World War II. All of the traditional commodities have increased in efficiency through a variety of different technologies. Interestingly enough, one enterprise that emerged as important after the war and has declined since then is beef cattle production. The initial response by the rural people here and elsewhere, when they gave up row crops, was to plant pastures and get beef cattle. In the mid-70s, the beef cattle industry in this state was a very thriving business. It was everywhere you looked, and it was expected to continue to grow. For one reason or another, beef cattle production has not developed the technology that has made it more efficient. Per capita consumption of beef has gone down. Poultry industry came on the scene. It went from backyard flocks that people grew their own chicken meat to a very technologically advanced system. They have replaced beef cattle in the economic and political spotlight. Now, we really have a very small beef cattle industry. It has shown some signs of reviving here lately. There has been a tremendous shift. Forest increase--there is a lot of the land that was in farming, in the small farms that is now in forest product. Still most of it in private landowners. The kinds of things that have made the greatest impact are mechanization to begin with, the tractor, the combine, and they get bigger and bigger every year. That did not really come on board until after World War II. You had a few tractors, but mostly animal power prior to that time. So, that was the first revolution was bringing in petroleum power, instead of animal power. The next was the chemical revolution in first fertilizer, and second, pesticides. Fertilizer, most people today do not realize what a difference that has made, but many people...my parents farmed and they did not know what fertilizer was when they started farming, and their yields showed it (laughters). Now, the technology of providing nutrients is very well developed. Probably the one that nonstudents of the field don't understand as well is weed control. In the humid south, particularly in the delta, mechanization was not really possible until weed control became possible with chemicals, because you still had to have people with hoes out there chopping cotton. If you had to have them to chop the cotton, you might as well keep them to pick the cotton. MB: RF: Yeah. Because you had to have that labor force. There was not way to control weeds except through manual labor, through running tractors back and forth with cultivators, and it was labor intensive. When they discovered chemicals that would control weeds, it completely changed the labor requirements for farming. Then, yields got boosted further by insect technology, up to and including the boll weevil eradication, which is having its impact right now, hitting cotton production. But, the chemical revolution was followed by the computer revolution, the information revolution. [END TAPE 1, SIDE A] RF: Beginning in the 1960s, when Watson and Krick discovered the nature of DNA, the science and disciplines of biology have been transforming themselves. It is now Biotechnology. It really is what I like to call the new Biology, because we have just learned a lot more and we have the tools to learn a lot more about the way plants and animals' function, and their needs and their capabilities. The first application in agriculture, widespread of those technologies, was in diary production with bovine sumatatropin? (10), which was a biotechnology-derived injection that increased milk production. That has had an impact; a tremendous impact on the diary industry nationally. Unfortunately, it has had a very negative impact on the dairy industry in this state, because we had a state that was based on many many small dairies. Turns out bovine samatatropin? works on any cow, but on the very highly managed cows with high technology dairies, your benefits are much higher than they are in the low management situation. So, we have now seen the milk industry in the United States dominated by very very large dairy farms, concentrated in the desert areas of New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California. Very Very large, 1500 cows diaries, where we have 100 cow dairies. We have only one such dairy in this state, in Hinds County. It seems inevitable that we will have a few very very large dairy operations, and that has been difficult because the dairy farms have been the last of the true family farms. That is where momma and dad and all the kids work on the farm and they made pretty good money, it was a profitable business until technology has now brought it to the point that it needs to be much much larger. Mush of that is due to marketing. A lot of it is due to technology. At any rate, moving from the BST, the next technology to impact Mississippi agriculture was the genetic manipulation and modification of planting seed. Scientists learned fifteen years ago and perfected no more than ten years ago, probably closer to six, the ability to insert genetic material from one species into another. Thereby, introducing traits that could not be done before. The two that have revolutionized Mississippi agriculture is so-called BT cotton. That is cotton that has had a gene from a bacteria, bacillus therungexus? inserted into the cotton plant. The bacteria makes a poison that kills butterflies, or kills the larva of butterflies. Now, you can plant a cotton seed that will result in a cotton plant that when a tobacco budworm or cotton bollworm, larva starts eating on it, the larva will die. Its got its own protection. Concurrently with that, there are technology firms, mostly private firms, have developed genes to be inserted in soybeans, corn, and other crops that make them impervious to a particular herbicide, which means that you can plant a seed that will produce a plant that you can spray with a weed killer and it wont hurt the plant, but it will kill everything else there, which makes for the ideal weed control. It has just completely transformed the weed control thing. Now, this is just the beginning. I am very proud that through leadership of Mac Portera and others, mostly since I left, and through gifts from the _________(59)? Foundation, that Mississippi State now has an institute for Biotechnology and Life Sciences. I think that _________? just gave them two million dollars not too far back. That is where the action is today and is going to be in the future. The opportunity to manipulate growth processes, to accomplish things that man wants to accomplish are just unlimited right now. Very exciting to think about it. One thing that I want to get to, and I guess that I will do this on a separate thing... the one thing of all the things that I have been privileged to participate in, that is absolutely unique to Mississippi and to Mississippi State is the catfish industry. MB: RF: MB: Ok. And I want to do that. I want to give you a long load on that because it is fascinating. We will pick up with that one next week. June 25, 2002 interview continues. I think we quit last time when you were getting ready to expound on the catfish industry. So, you can take off with that. Yeah, I think its good to look at the evolution of the catfish industry as an example of the way the university and the private sector can make a real difference. The fortunate thing about my career is that I came here prior to the beginning even of the vestiges or beginnings of a catfish industry and was positioned by the jobs that I held to be knowledgeable about what was going on. The actual farming of fish has been a dream for a lot of people for a long long time. Of course, it is widely done in Asian cultures, but in ways that do not really fit with our system. About the late 1960s, several things seemed to happen in Mississippi agriculture RF: that pushed innovators to looking for new ways to do business. Interestingly enough, the catfish industry had its birth...it's debatable point (laughter) as to where the first catfish pond was, but there were a few innovators in the Mississippi Delta, but there was a concentration of people around Laurel, Mississippi who had been influenced by research that had been down at Auburn, and Alabama farmers across the line that were trying to catfish. Interestingly enough, one of those innovators was Charles Pickering, the current judge whose son is in the legislature in the Congress. The Pickering family was one of the earlier families in the catfish business and Charles Pickering was one of the first presidents, if not the first president, of the Catfish Farmers of Mississippi. At any rate, in 1973 as I recall, two or three, there was a happening that normall