When Rich Buckley came to Rutgers to earn his masters degree in plant pathology in 1988 his boss told him, “You’re going to work in turfgrass.” Dr. Phil Halisky was referring to turfgrass science and today Buckley is the highly respected director of Rutgers University’s Soil Testing and Plant Diagnostic Services (STPDS).
The STPDS are outreach services of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station that provide disease and insect pest diagnosis of plant samples, as well as, chemical and physical analysis of soil. Turfgrass and ornamental plants are the primary focus of the disease diagnostic component of the STPDS. Buckley is the principle diagnostician and has looked at over 30,000 samples of dead and dying plant material in his career. He is also a prolific public speaker and an instructor in the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School. In the 2-year program he teaches classes such as Turfgrass Diseases, Turfgrass Insect Pests, Diseases and Insect Pests of Ornamental Plants, and Integrated Pest Management Techniques.
Buckley’s lab is a testimony to his mission: computers hooked up to microscopes surround the room, leaf and soil samples are everywhere and a sense of hospital-like urgency fills the air. In fact, Buckley said, “We are the emergency room for dying plants.” Many of Buckley’s former students in the Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School remember him and are oftentimes the biggest source of patients to the lab. The first time Gray Leaf Spot was diagnosed in the laboratory the sample came from a former student. “It’s a fungal disease that kills a lot of grass very quickly. It came to us in 1993 from the assistant (a former student) at Philadelphia Country Club. The disease subsequently turned into a real epidemic and killed a lot of grass on golf courses and sports fields in our region.”
In class Buckley has two missions: one is to prepare students to work with golf turf. “Golf course putting greens are artificial by nature. Managing grass to optimize the game of golf is often in conflict with the health needs of the grass. The conflict makes the grass susceptible to diseases and insects. In class, I teach how to recognize and manage the problems that pop up.” Buckley’s other mission is to get students to think about what they are doing. “Managing plant health entails a lot more than following a 4-step program.” In the end, “We try to teach the love of learning and turn average folks into life long students of science.”
After nearly 20 years in the New Jersey turf arena, Rich Buckley thinks that the turfgrass industry is filled with job opportunities. “Many of our turf school students have gone on to very successful careers in the turf industry.” “Dr. Halisky was a prophet in my life. Turfgrass science has given me a great career and I am truly grateful for that.” said Buckley.