Plant breeding runs in the family

January 5, 2023

Alumni brothers Michael and Geoffrey Graham receive U of M Outstanding Achievement Awards for their agricultural leadership, innovation, and knowledge-sharing

Geoff and Mike Graham.

(L to R) Geoff Graham and Mike Graham

Dinnertime at Michael and Geoffrey Graham’s boyhood home was anything but tranquil. While the brothers didn’t quite throw food at each other, there was plenty of healthy — and strongly spirited  — scientific debate going on between “hand me the pepper” and “pass the potatoes.” 

Many meals and several decades later, Mike and Geoff are still affably sparring. But because both of the CFANS alumni hold senior leadership positions in plant breeding at two different — and highly competitive — companies, shop talk at family get-togethers is off the table. So when the two came to campus in October 2022 to receive University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Awards for their revolutionary leadership in plant breeding, CFANS Dean Brian Buhr playfully pondered whether they had to sign non-disclosure agreements before sharing supper. 

Mike, a PhD who received his BS in agronomy at CFANS in 1982; and Geoff, a PhD who received his BS at CFANS in agronomy and plant genetics in 1989 and his MS in agriculture and horticultural plant breeding at CFANS in 1991, were both individually recognized with this distinguished award, the highest honor the U of M bestows on its graduates. It is conferred only on graduates who have attained unusual distinction in their chosen fields or professions or in public service, and who have demonstrated outstanding achievement and leadership on a community, state, national, or international level. 

Both of the brothers have made a positive impact on global agriculture throughout their careers. Mike, the eldest, is the head of plant breeding at Bayer Crop Science, where he oversees the plant genetics and breeding program and leads a global team to develop seed with better genetics for farmers. Geoff is the global plant breeding lead at Corteva Agriscience, where he is responsible for all global breeding activities. Both men, who have held a variety of roles at major companies over the years, today direct hundreds of employees in countries throughout the world in the effort to use science and technology to drive innovation in agriculture. 

At the award ceremony, both acknowledged their spouses, families, U of M, and advisor Vern Caldwell, who was present at the event, as instrumental to their success. Mike joked that when he first walked into Caldwell’s office as a young student, he was “super scared,” because he had no idea what an advisor actually did. As it turns out, Caldwell’s influence is still making a difference in the brothers’ lives today.

Geoff underscored the importance family played in nurturing the brothers’ careers and reflected on their late father, Peter, who was a prominent plant breeder, soil scientist, and U of M alumni. As children, the two would often spend time with their dad in the field, helping him with research trials. There, they were exposed to the challenges of running experiments, the importance of new technology, accelerating product development, and collaborating with people from diverse backgrounds. “Whoever hired our father a long time ago changed our lives, and that’s a fantastic part about our journey here,” said Geoff. 

The brothers, who were born in Australia and lived in India and Columbia with Peter and their mother, Rosemary, before coming to the United States in 1982, have always been passionate about international agriculture. Both have a keen interest in modernizing plant breeding programs in developing countries to help smallholder farmers prosper. 

“The Graham family’s passion for innovation in the field of agriculture is nothing short of remarkable,” said Buhr. “As dean of CFANS, it is rewarding to know that alumni like Mike and Geoff are making a broad and lasting impact on improving agricultural production on a global scale and helping to feed a growing world while stewarding the environment.” 

Geoff and Mike also share a spirit of compassionate leadership and a zeal for advancing the plant scientists of tomorrow. Geoff’s Outstanding Achievement Award Citation calls him an “inspirational leader in agricultural research” and “visionary and mentor who is committed to the development of future plant breeder professionals.” Mike’s citation describes a “forward-thinking expert in plant breeding” and “leader who is committed to cultivating the next generation of talent in agricultural innovation.” 

As the Graham brothers continue to lead their respective companies into the future of plant breeding, it’s clear that their shared history plays a strong role in the values they uphold and the vision that guides them. It is the world’s good fortune that those dinner debates of youth have blossomed into careers that are changing so many lives for the better. 

Impact Winter 2023: Table of Contents