FAIRBANKS — On the stage of the Alaska Peony Growers Association’s winter conference, University of Alaska Professor Mingchu Zhang was awarded the organization’s Growers Cup Award, a big silver trophy recognizing his research supporting the peony industry.
Zhang is a researcher who specializes in soil and plant nutrition, and has dedicated his life to understanding and teaching the science behind growing plants.
It’s a passion that started early for Zhang, who grew up in Wuhan, China, under the communist rule of Chairman Mao Zedong.
“I actually grew up in the city, nothing to do with agriculture. No clue about seeds or soil or growing crops,” he said. “I finished high school and I was sent to the countryside — they were sending young, educated people to the countryside to farm — and during that time, I developed a passion about agriculture.”
He said working in the fields was hard, eye-opening work.
“I felt that the farmers at that time in China were poor, but worked hard,” he said. “I said, these people do need help. When I had the chance to go to college I went to college for agriculture. ... My family thought it was a foolish decision. Nobody in my family is in agriculture except for me.”
Zhang first attended university in Alberta, Canada, then moved to Fairbanks in 2003, where he settled in and raised a family. Now 60, he spent much of his time focusing on the now multimillion-dollar peony industry in Alaska, working to understand what makes peonies grow best.
He’s often shared that knowledge directly with growers across Alaska, working to translate lab results to common language. He said along with making growing things easier, he has a passion for teaching.
“My philosophy is the nation is great because of its people and the way you make people great is to educate them,” he said. “That’s why I have a passion for educating.”
He said his long-term dream is to develop a grain crop that’s perfectly suited to Alaska’s climate and shorter growing season. He’s currently working with breeders on that project, and said ideally it could help shore up Alaska’s food security.
“Life is short, things can change, but if you have something benefit the whole people, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “With crops and plants, if people benefit from that and they are happy, then I’m happy.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.