Dr. Klein: Prepping seedlings for a thriving future

Agricultural researcher Dr. Joshua D. Klein understands the nurturing that seedlings need and devises strategies to help them survive the vicissitudes of climate and weather.

 Dr. Klein: Prepping seedlings for a thriving future


Prof. Joshua Klein with Prof. Satriyas Ilias, a fellow Cornell graduate and seed science colleague, on his visit to Indonesia, July 2010

By Avigayil Kadesh

Like any infant, crop seedlings need TLC to mature into hardy adults. Whether it’s California cucumbers or Israeli basil suffering from night chill, or Thai hot peppers or Dutch onions thirsting from drought, agricultural researcher Dr. Joshua D. Klein specializes in prepping seedlings for a thriving future.

A plant science researcher for the Volcani Center of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Klein has an office in the appropriately named Beit Dagan (House of Grain), a central Israeli town not far from his home in Rehovot.

Much of the time, though, Klein is on the road keeping tabs on domestic agricultural experiments. He also travels the world devising strategies with fellow plant scientists.

 Dr. Klein: Prepping seedlings for a thriving future

Prof. Joshua Klein with growers at a willow plantation in California.

Last summer found him in Indonesia treating rice straw as a first step in integrating Israeli and Indonesian seed science methods for drought conditions. To his surprise, his partner there was a fellow Cornell University graduate.

He is also working with a Kenyan agronomist to enhance protective leaf wax growing on maize, the African country’s staple crop. They are seeking funding to expand on laboratory success with this endeavor, Klein says.

Agriculture and Jewish law

Born in 1955 in Schenectady, NY, Klein completed a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science at Cornell in 1977. He earned a Pennsylvania State University master’s degree in plant nutrition (1980) and a Ph.D. at Michigan State University in post-harvest physiology (1983).

His first job took him to New Zealand as a specialist in post-harvest storage of apples and tropical feijoas. He and his wife, Adina, arrived in Israel with six-month-old Rafael in 1986 on a BARD Fellowship at Volcani. After two years of experimenting with methods for extending the storage life and quality of apples, Klein accepted a position at Volcani, researching aspects of agriculture associated with Jewish law.

"This has applications for Jewish observance of agricultural commandments, but also wider agricultural implications for non-religious farmers here and in countries with climates similar to Israel’s," he explains. "Even tropical countries have drought-prone areas and can utilize the results of my experiments."

Early on, Klein zeroed in on chemically fortifying grain and vegetable seeds to survive after germination until the winter rains, with less irrigation. Another international focus is strengthening young crops against the stress of chilling or injury. "Some seedlings are sensitive to cold just as babies are more sensitive to temperature extremes," he explains. "They can be badly stunted by night chill."

$40m. basil babies

The "babies" he’s tended include basil, a $40 million export crop for Israel; USDA apples in Beltsville, Md.; cucumbers at the University of California-Davis; and onion seedlings at a Dutch university.

Klein flew Down Under in 2008 to participate in research on wheat and barley in Canberra. Australia, a major wheat-producing country that has had little rainfall for several years, is breeding drought-resistant varieties that can drink from deeper water sources.

"I learned a couple of techniques from their methods and materials. And I brought a notion to them that they later adopted. Almost anytime you visit someplace, there is cross-pollination – you learn as much as you teach, if you’re open to new ideas."

Klein’s earlier collaborations included a German-funded project in Thailand to expand the growing season for hot peppers in dry regions. It began when a former Michigan State lab partner introduced Klein to a seed researcher near Bangkok. The two visited each other several times during the course of the project, which was of critical importance to farmers of the peppers, a Thai cuisine mainstay. "For each extra kilo yield in their small farm plots, they could earn 40 bahts. That’s a lot of money for them."

Daring to try new concoctions

 Dr. Klein: Prepping seedlings for a thriving future

Agricultural researcher, Prof. Joshua Klein with two types of citron fruits from Volcani’s experimental orchards.

Commercializing the solutions he finds poses a separate challenge. "Farmers are conservative by nature," Klein notes. "Diffusing the knowledge is pretty easy, but getting people to adopt new methods into already existing frameworks is hard."

Forming international scientific collaborations, one of Volcani’s priorities, also can be tricky from a diplomacy standpoint, but Klein finds most scientists leave politics to the politicians. Volcani has worked with Egyptian, Moroccan and Jordanian scientists, and Klein has proposed collaborations with Palestinian peers as well.

Taking along his camera to document science and scenery wherever he goes, the father of four particularly fancies the verdant landscape of the Golan Heights. He recently harvested willows in Motza, another favorite area in the hills surrounding Jerusalem.

Klein not only collects samples of the citron (etrog) fruit but also uses them in ice creams he concocts each Friday. Though his kids prefer Heath bar crunch and dolce de leche, he’s been known to experiment with flavors such as anona (custard apple)-banana, which received a unanimous thumbs-down. Like his field experiments, some ideas yield better results than others.