Excellence in Extension for Gordon Johnson

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Gordon Johnson sets up a watermelon research station at a field tour
Johnson’s research includes investigating hollow heart disorder in watermelon, a crop worth $20 to 30 million dollars annually on Delmarva.

Gordon Johnson earns Excellence in Extension Award

Gordon Johnson earned the 2019 Northeast Region Excellence in Extension Award for his applied research and impactful education work with vegetable and fruit crops. Throughout Delaware and the mid-Atlantic, his research and extension program provides evidence-based, scientific answers to grower questions and problems. In addition to numerous variety trials with an array of crops, Johnson’s research includes everything from hollow heart disorder in watermelon to decommissioning poultry houses — considering both protecting the environment and future production. He leads numerous variety trials and provides a weekly blog on current fruit and vegetable production information.

Johnson says his approach to his extension work has been three-fold:

  • Identifying and addressing the needs of the agricultural community and rural residents, and developing programming to address those needs;

  • Providing science-based information on potential new opportunities for agriculture in Delaware with applied research;

  • Encouraging entrepreneurship in agriculture and commercial horticulture; and 

  • Helping the industry understand and address environmental and health-related regulatory concerns by providing education and assistance in those areas.  

“I take pride in making an impact in teaching adults and in providing critical information in a timely manner to the industry,” emphasized the UD Department of Plant and Soil Sciences assistant professor.

Johnson, who completed his Ph.D. in plant science from the University of Delaware in 2011, is known for placing a high priority on producer needs. His initiative and leadership were on display early in his extension career as part of the Delaware Nutrient Management Committee. Johnson’s efforts led to the Delaware Nutrient Management Plan, which was adopted into law. 

The region’s watermelon industry boasts more than 400 watermelon growers represented across 20,000 acres in seven states. Johnson’s best practice recommendations boasted a 91 percent adoption by growers. With 180 farms growing watermelons on Delmarva, the crop is worth $20 to 30 million dollars annually.

“Gordon focuses his applied research and educational efforts to ensure economic sustainability of the fruit and vegetable industry into the future by addressing the most pressing issues that arise,” said UD Cooperative Extension Director Michelle Rodgers. 

Although food safety is not his primary research interest, Johnson recognized the importance of this topic to the state’s fruit and vegetable industry. He worked with producers around the Food Safety Modernization Act. Johnson also developed and provides certification training and on-farm assessment education. 

Johnson’s early work in convening nutrient management legislation was followed by implementing best practices in the decommissioning of poultry houses on Delmarva, which is home to some 5,100 in total. His set of recommendations for remediation prevents excess nutrient pollution from leaching into groundwater. 

Johnson began his Cooperative Extension career in 1994 as an agent.

“I was first hired as a Commercial Horticulture and Specialty Crops Extension agent working out of Kent County doing greenhouse, nursery, turf, and landscape extension. After three years, I added agronomic crops, dairy extension, and then small farms programming,” recalled Johnson. “It is not your usual extension portfolio, but all of these areas were challenging and very rewarding. This has allowed me to view issues from multiple sides and offer different perspectives to solving problems.” 

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities will honor Johnson at its upcoming annual meeting. 

Research funding

Johnson acquired grants to fund his research and Extension program from:

  • Mar-Del Watermelon Growers Association and the National Watermelon Association for projects addressing hollow heart disorder, fruit set and pollination;

  • National Pickle Packers Association for projects related to fertility and parthenocarpic pickling cucumbers;

  • USDA Specialty Crop Block Grants (administered by the Delaware Department of Agriculture) supporting research and extension projects forgreens, onions, grapes, watermelons and lima beans;

  • A USDA NIFA Specialty Crop Initiative (SCRI) Grant to “Build a Better Lima Bean”;

  • A USDA NIFA E-IPM Grant for “Cover Crops and Soil Health to Improve Pest Management in Vegetables”; and

  • Center for Produce Safety and others for work on food safety issues. 

Gordon Johnson sizes up an onion.
Johnson acquired grants to fund his research and Extension program from U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grants (administered by the Delaware Department of Agriculture) supporting research and extension projects forgreens, onions, grapes, watermelons and lima beans.