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NDSU Administrator and Plant Breeder Announces Retirement

Dr. Kenneth F. Grafton has had a significant impact working in multiple roles at North Dakota State University, from the humble beginnings of the dry edible bean breeding program to his administrative leadership on important initiatives for NDSU Agriculture. He retired June 30, 2020, after 40 years of distinguished service.
NDSU Administrator and Plant Breeder Announces Retirement

Dr. Kenneth F. Grafton

August 3, 2020

Dr. Kenneth F. Grafton has worn many hats representing a wide range of roles during his 40 years of distinguished service at North Dakota State University. On June 30, 2020, he hung up those hats for a new role: retiree.

Originally from Ohio, Grafton attended The Ohio State University, where he earned a B.S. in Agriculture and an M.S. in Plant Breeding and Genetics. He completed his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the University of Missouri.

He began working at NDSU in 1980 as a postdoctoral research associate in the newly formed dry bean breeding program led by Dr. Paul Sandal. In 1981, Grafton joined the Department of Plant Sciences faculty as an assistant professor, continuing to work with dry beans. When Sandal retired, Dr. Glen Weiser was hired for the dry bean breeding position. When he left, Grafton took over leadership of the breeding program with a 95% research and 5% teaching appointment, and Dr. Phil McClean became the legume geneticist. In 1987, Grafton achieved the rank of associate professor and in 1994, he was promoted to full professor. 

Dry Bean Breeding

Dry edible beans have been grown in the United States since the 1900s but were not grown in North Dakota until 1962. The NDSU dry bean breeding program began in 1979 with a small grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and two classes of beans, pinto and navy, as those were the classes grown in the state at the time. The objectives of the program early on were to improve production practices, conduct genetic research on important production traits, and develop improved germplasm that was adapted to the relatively new production environment. As bean acreage increased in North Dakota, demand grew for varieties adapted to the region. The NDSU dry bean breeding program responded with new varieties in more market classes. Today, the program works with eight market classes of dry edible beans and North Dakota is the largest producer of dry beans in the United States, according to the U.S. Dry Bean Council (

The first dry bean varieties released under Grafton’s leadership, ‘Holberg’ pinto in 1983 and ‘Nodak’ pinto in 1984, were a collaboration with Dr. D.W. Burke at USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Prosser, Washington. The NDSU dry bean breeding program then independently developed and released 10 more varieties under Grafton’s leadership. “I was thankful that I was able to develop and release some varieties that proved to be very successful,” he says, “including ‘Norstar’ navy bean (1991), ‘Maverick’ pinto bean (1996), and ‘Eclipse’ black bean (2004).” ‘Eclipse’ is still the most widely grown black bean in North Dakota (Northarvest Bean Grower, Summer 2019, p. 9). 

Grafton also was involved in the development and release of over 30 dry bean germplasm lines, collaborating with scientists at the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, Maryland, and at Michigan State University. Furthermore, the NDSU varieties ‘Rosie’ light red kidney (2014), ‘Talon’ dark red kidney (2014), and ‘Rio Rojo’ small red bean (2012) were derived from crosses made by Grafton. 

In 1995, Grafton was selected to receive the Distinguished Achievement Award by the Bean Improvement Cooperative. The award is presented to scientists that have impacted bean research during the early portion of their careers.

“I think the greatest satisfaction I have is seeing the dry bean breeding program, which started out with very humble resources (no field equipment, no lab equipment, limited funding), expand to its current level of prominence,” says Grafton. “The program is under great leadership with Dr. Juan Osorno, and remains productive and responsive to the dry bean industry in the state and region, while also participating in an international effort administered through Michigan State University.”

Grafton also credits the Northarvest Bean Growers Association for “making dry bean research at NDSU possible” by seeing the need for dry bean breeding, understanding that plant breeding is a long-term endeavor, and supporting the program.

Grafton has published 38 refereed publications, 25 edited publications, 3 book chapters and symposia, 20 Extension publications, and 31 abstracts. Of all these publications he says, “Perhaps the series of papers that Dr. John Moraghan led on nutrient uptake and availability, particularly zinc and iron, in dry bean seed had the greatest research impact”.

Grafton was a member of, held multiple offices and chaired conference sessions in professional organizations including the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Bean Improvement Cooperative (BIC). He was a speaker at numerous conferences and served on regional and national research committees. He also worked with and provided information to local and regional dry bean commodity groups. His leadership ability was recognized by his peers early in his career as he was selected to serve on and chair committees within the department, college, and university. 

In addition to research, Grafton taught Advanced Genetics, Microevolution of Plant Species, Introduction to Plant Breeding, and Introductory Genetics. He was an adviser to five graduate students and served on more than 47 graduate committees.

Reflecting on Change

Reflecting on the many changes he has seen during his tenure at NDSU, Grafton highlights the new facilities that have had an impact on agricultural research. The USDA Northern Crops Science Lab, now named after former Agriculture Secretary and North Dakota Governor Edward T. Schafer, “expanded the research capacity of both federal and state scientists, with excellent laboratory space, and also increased greenhouse capacity on campus,” says Grafton.

Loftsgard Hall, completed in 1991, became the new home for Plant Sciences, which had previously shared Walster Hall with Plant Pathology and Soil Science. “Loftsgard Hall provided the Department of Plant Sciences a very large amount of high quality laboratory space, something that was in extremely short supply in Walster Hall,” he says. “This opened up new opportunities for faculty to include laboratory research as part of their project portfolio, including the new advances in plant biotechnology and genomics.”

Finally, Grafton highlights the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station Greenhouse complex, which was constructed in multiple phases over several years and dedicated in 2015. “This facility provides excellent greenhouse space, which many Agricultural Experiment Station scientists desperately needed for their research programs to continue making progress,” he says.  “All-in-all, this is one of the greatest investments the state has made for plant science research in North Dakota.”

Administrative Roles

Grafton held several administrative roles at NDSU. In 2001, he was appointed Associate Dean of the Graduate School, while he continued to lead the dry bean breeding program. He was appointed Director of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) in 2002, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources in 2005, and Vice President for Agricultural Affairs in 2011. As he transitioned into these concurrent administrative roles, Osorno was hired in 2007 to direct the dry bean breeding program. 

“When I transitioned to administration in 2002, one of my goals was to find ways to enhance the infrastructure of the AES at the Main Station and at the Research Extension Centers,” says Grafton. “I think that, over the years working as a team, we (faculty, chairs/heads, Research Extension Center directors) were able to identify areas that needed better infrastructure and develop the positive relationships with state decision-makers to move at least some of these projects forward.”

During his tenure as Director of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, the agency expanded and funds were received for several new buildings and laboratories including the Beef Cattle Research Complex, the AES Vet Diagnostic Lab, new seed cleaning facilities at Carrington Research Extension Center (REC), North Central REC, and Williston REC, and new or improved field research labs and headquarters buildings at all RECs. 

During his time as Dean, the College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources saw growth in new faculty positions, scholarship funds, agriculture majors, and the development of the School of Natural Resources Sciences.

Grafton served in these administrative roles until 2018, when he was selected to serve as the Interim Provost for the university. On January 1, 2020, he returned to the faculty of the Department of Plant Sciences. Grafton retired June 30, 2020, after 40 years of service, and was named an Emeritus Vice President, Emeritus Dean and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Agricultural Affairs.

Parting with Gratitude

When asked what he will remember most from his career, he answers, “Working with great people! Trying to do what was right, taking responsibility for decisions, and treating people with respect.”

He expresses gratitude to all those he has worked with during the past 40 years:

I want to thank everyone for their efforts over the years - your efforts made the AES look good, which made my job easier. I wish you all the best in your careers!   

Also, special thanks to Eileen Buringrud, who is the Department of Plant Sciences mainstay, AES administrative personnel Lucy Radke, Janelle Quam, and Patti Sebesta, and Karen Braun in the Provost's Office for their hard work in putting up with me as a supervisor!  

In gratitude for all the hats he has worn, we lift ours to Dr. Grafton for his dedicated leadership and service to North Dakota State University. We wish him a long and enjoyable retirement.

Author: Kamie Beeson, 701-231-7123,
Editor: Karen Hertsgaard, 701-231-5384,

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