For 50 years, Rod Zeltmann has been preparing fields, fixing equipment, helping researchers and supporting the agricultural community through his work as a field assistant at the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center (LIHREC) in Riverhead, NY. This year, he joined a select group of Cornell employees who have dedicated 50 years or more to the university.
“He’s the pinnacle of reliability, for sure,” said Wayne Lindsay, farm and greenhouse supervisor at LIHREC. “You can always count on Rod: the things he’s going to do, you know he’ll do them well.”
Zeltmann started working at Cornell’s Long Island research center in 1970, part-time, while in high school. As one of thirteen children, if Zeltmann wanted to participate in sports, he had to earn the money himself, he said. In 1973, the farm manager, Henry Okula, recruited him to a full-time position, and he’s worked for LIHREC ever since. LIHREC is one of nine research farms statewide supported by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES), and the only one on Long Island; the center celebrated its 100th year of operation in 2022.
When Zeltmann started at LIHREC, Long Island hosted large farms growing potatoes, cauliflower and cabbage, and the center matched those research priorities. Since then, Long Island has urbanized, and farms have diversified, he said.
“It used to be really rural around here and now we’re growing houses,” Zeltmann said. “We have less potato farmland, more ornamentals, more pick-your-own, sod farms, farm stands, vineyards. The whole dynamic has changed from 50 years ago.”
LIHREC has adapted, too, hosting myriad researchers and specialists who work to address problems specific to Long Island growers, said Mark Bridgen, LIHREC co-director and a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science. The center’s program leaders include plant pathologists, an entomologist, a weed scientist, and specialists in greenhouses, nursery and landscaping, fruit and grapes, and vegetables.
“We are the only station in the U.S. that has every commodity and all these cross-disciplinary scientists,” Bridgen said. For field staff like Zeltmann and Lindsay, that requires above-average adaptability to accommodate such an array of research needs, he said.
“Rod’s a good resource person. Since he knows what’s happened in the center for 50 years, he has experience with pretty much anything relating to the field,” Bridgen said.
“A lot of us scientists are lab rats – not necessarily trained out in the field – so he’ll give us good advice about how to set up an experiment, with details we might not pay attention to, like rotating fields, time of application for fertilizers or pesticides and thinking through when to plant crops,” Bridgen added.
Unusually, Zeltmann also lives at the farm: for the last 47 years, he and his wife, Kathy, have lived in the original farmhouse and raised three children there: Deidre, Jarod and Aaron. Having Zeltmann so close has been a benefit to LIHREC, as he is generally available to respond quickly to crises, Bridgen said.
“It’s great to have Rod living on the property because if the heating plant goes down, that’s a real problem for our facilities and our research,” Bridgen said. “Rod knows how to fix that system and he’s right there to respond.”
Zeltmann also supports researchers and growers by collecting weather information for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather station, which is housed at LIHREC. In 2011, he was awarded the John Campanius Holm award by NOAA for 30 years of dedication to this work – now 42 years. NOAA uses such observations to improve weather predictions, which are critically important for growers.
After 50 years, Zeltmann is starting to think about retirement, though not quite yet.
“The staff here are so easy, so nice, and that’s probably one of the reasons I’ve been here that long. I enjoy my job. If you have a good staff working with you, why not keep working?” Zeltmann said. “Fifty years is a long time but, I swear, it went by so fast.”
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES)
We openly share valuable knowledge.
Sign up for more insights, discoveries and solutions.