Dr. Grady Miller: Advancing Turfgrass Science and Education

Dr. Grady Miller, PhD, is a Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist and the ENVU Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at N.C. State University. Growing up on a cattle farm in Florien, Louisiana, he developed an early interest in agriculture. As a first-generation college graduate, he pursued an Agriculture degree at Louisiana Tech, inspired by his teachers and family. This path eventually led him to become a leading figure in turfgrass science, with a career spanning several esteemed institutions and impactful roles.

Dr. Grady Miller visits Avery Island, the home of Tabasco hot sauce, in his native state of Louisiana.

During the summer of his junior year at Louisiana Tech, he worked for Rohm and Haas Chemical Company in the Mississippi Delta. Initially planning to teach agriculture, Miller completed education requirements at Louisiana Tech, earning his teaching certificate alongside his degree in Agriculture. But when he graduated, Rohm and Haas offered him a job to return to Mississippi, where he stayed before leaving for Baton Rouge to get his master’s degree at LSU. Near the end of his graduate program, Miller’s professor left LSU, so Miller made friends with some turfgrass majors and decided to take a horticulture course after finishing his graduate requirements.

Educational Background

A shift in his interests led him to pursue turfgrass science, inspired by LSU faculty members like Jack Fry, now a Turfgrass Science Professor and Extension Specialist at Kansas State. “He wasn’t there long, but I was impressed with Jack and turf. I’d been in forages and decided turfgrass might be more interesting. I finished my master’s and when I was looking where to go, I met Professor Ray Dickens at Auburn University,” he said. Miller thought he’d be someone he’d enjoy working with, so he went to Auburn for his PhD in Turfgrass Science. “That’s how I ended up in turfgrass and certainly never looked back since starting my PhD in 1990,” he said.

The same week he graduated from Auburn, he started his professional career at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He spent nearly 12 years there, progressing from assistant to full professor and taught five courses a year as the primary teaching faculty for the four-year turf program. “I was totally immersed in teaching when I was at Florida and enjoyed it—meeting new students and following them in their careers. I went to some of their weddings. I get Christmas cards with their family pictures on them now from students I taught 20-plus years ago. It’s just a lot of joy seeing young people develop and grow up. It’s very fulfilling,” Miller said. Even for the students who aren’t in the industry anymore, he enjoys seeing what they’ve all gone on to accomplish.

Dr. Grady Miller teaching a sports turf logo lab in March 2006.

In 2006, shortly after he was promoted to full professor at Florida, Miller took a position at N.C. State, replacing longtime educator and extension specialist Art Bruneau as he entered a phased retirement plan. The role included research, teaching and extension work, which Miller explained is adult education for industry professionals. He’d done some extension work at Florida, but not as a primary component of his job.

Over the past 18 years, more faculty members have retired, leading to Miller teaching more university classes. Now, his extension and teaching appointment are about the same. For the first ten years there, he only knew a handful of undergraduate students, but now his career has come full circle as he’s resumed teaching undergraduate students and is getting to know them better.

Dr. Grady Miller presenting on turfgrass research at N.C. State’s annual Lake Wheeler Field Day.

Shaping Future Leaders in Turfgrass

Miller has taught many students who have excelled in the green industry, significantly impacting various roles. While he can’t recall any current graduate students in academia full-time, some are still involved part-time. A handful of his former students are now adjunct faculty and community college teachers. Several of his students are thriving in the chemical company sector.

One notable graduate student of Miller’s is Casey Reynolds, Executive Director of Turfgrass Producers International (TPI). After earning his PhD, Reynolds began his career as a faculty member at Texas A&M. Miller expressed pride in Reynolds’ accomplishments, noting his significant impact on the industry.

Dr. Grady Miller (right) preparing research plots.

Many of Miller’s former students have worked at prestigious locations like Augusta National, including Asa High as Senior Assistant Superintendent and Max McQuade as an assistant in training for several years. His students from the University of Florida have gone on to work at TPC Sawgrass, the USGA and throughout the golf industry. Some individuals have delved into sports turf management, including professionals with renowned teams like the Miami Dolphins. Former student Danny Losito, CSFM, holds the role of Director of Sports Fields and Grounds for the Carolina Panthers. He also taught two Sod Solutions employees, Director of Florida Operations Mark Kann and Director of Production Joel Lane.

He’s taught hundreds of students, making it hard to recount all who have entered the turfgrass industry. Miller has seen students excel through people skills, influencing others and leading by example, showing personality traits can be as influential as knowledge. He advises young professionals to gain diverse experiences and actively participate in the industry. “Use the time while you’re in school to think outside the box, get out of your comfort zone, go somewhere exotic, manage some grass you’ve never managed before, just use that opportunity because that’s a time when it’s very forgiving to explore or make mistakes. Get involved and make your voice heard,” he said.

New Turfgrass Releases:

Part of Miller’s extension role is researching new germplasm through the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) and germplasm from various breeders, such as N.C. State’s Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis or commercial breeders at seed companies. They conduct regional trials and take the time to look at germplasm regardless of where it comes from, particularly when it comes from their own university. N.C. State recently released Lobo™ Zoysiagrass and Sola™ St Augustinegrass, with Miller playing a key role in their trials and evaluations.

Pictured (from left) are Art Bruneau, Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis, Dr. Grady Miller and Linda Bradley at the Lobo™ Zoysiagrass release at the NCSPA Fall Field Day on Nov. 10, 2021.

“Lobo has a darker green color, nice texture and has done phenomenally under low input roadside DOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation) trials. It offers something different from what’s available now and is an attractive grass,” he said. “Being able to see something not only different but better than what’s commonly used is pretty exciting. It’s exciting for our industry, for our university and our breeding program.”

Miller feels the same way about Sola, seeing it as great for the southern United States. For North Carolina, Sola will work well for older neighborhoods with tall fescue and large tree canopies. “It offers a great alternative in a warm season grass they haven’t had before. That’s pretty cool to bring to a homeowner or builders putting in these landscapes to suggest a St. Augustine that will fit this situation pretty well,” Miller said. He thinks Sola will replace standard grasses in Florida, the Gulf Coast and Texas. Miller said the characteristics of these new turfgrass varieties may differ from state to state. For example, drought tolerance might justify using Lobo in California and Arizona, while its beauty might make it popular in North Carolina. “It can have multiple traits and sell based on different attributes.”

Dr. Grady Miller at SCRI Sandhills in 2011.

In addition to Lobo and Sola, Miller has evaluated germplasm through the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) since its inception in 2010. Funded by a $3.8M USDA-NIFA grant, this project aims to improve drought and salinity tolerance for sustainable turfgrass in the southern U.S. It involves a team from Texas A&M, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Oklahoma State, and N.C. State, allowing breeders to exchange and evaluate experimental lines across diverse environments.

Miller explained that this has opened up a huge opportunity for evaluating germplasm, similar to the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) and regional trials. It has also allowed him to collaborate with many scientists within the SCRI program. “It’s exciting we put together that group years ago and have continued to grow each project. We’re in the process of submitting our final round of research focusing on acceptance of new cultivars. It’s been cool to see it come full circle.”

He explained that new research initiatives are underway to transition from cool to warm-season grasses and that he is excited to see what they will learn.

Collaborations and Challenges

Miller emphasized collaboration in the turfgrass industry through education, information exchange and problem-solving. “Almost nothing is done alone in a vacuum. All the great things we do in life are probably shared with other people. Anytime we can work with others or share information, it only makes the industry better, stronger and more responsive to problems and issues,” he said. He added that involvement in the industry fosters trust and respect.

“Misinformation can be damaging to this industry. You’d think such an environmentally friendly plant as turfgrass would be heralded as something that will help us environmentally. Still, sometimes it’s portrayed the opposite because of ‘water hogging,’ ‘full of pesticides’ and other misconceptions,” he said.

Miller believes it’s essential to demonstrate successful turfgrass management in low-water usage areas despite the need for irrigation in some places. He stressed the importance of countering misinformation with accurate information. He also expects improved water use efficiency and reduced inputs, with alternative power sources and technological advancements playing significant roles. Looking ahead, Miller is excited about the work being done to install natural grass inside indoor stadiums for the upcoming World Cup. Although this work isn’t happening in their state, he finds it fascinating and relevant to the broader industry.

Drs. Susana Milla-Lewis and Grady Miller announce Sola™ St. Augustinegrass at the annual N.C. State Lake Wheeler Field Day.

Contributions

Miller finds it hard to pick the accomplishment he’s most proud of. “Training students and young minds is something I’m certainly very proud of. A lot of accomplishments. I can also relish the students’ accomplishments and successes.” Seeing a grass on the market and knowing he contributed brings a sense of pride. “Anytime you have something come out of your program that succeeds, whether it’s grasses, people, products, new techniques or information that people are using and it helps solve problems, it’s certainly a source of pride.”

Dr. Grady Miller throwing crumbrubber was a photo the SFMA formerly ran with his column.

Miller has been a columnist for Sportsfield Management Magazine since September 2000, recently writing his 141st column. “That’s probably the longest single contribution I’ve made consistently in the turf industry in my career. If you had told me back then I’d be writing this for a quarter of a century, I would have said you’re crazy,” Miller said. He initially thought they’d move on after a few columns, but he continues to enjoy writing and the positive feedback. Many in the industry know him through his column and he values the questions and comments he receives. “It’s been a very great thing for me because it offers me a platform to educate and help people and has provided a lot of visibility for what I do and what I represent.”

Miller also co-authored Best Management Practices for Carolina Sports Fields, a guide for Carolina sports field managers, with Bert McCarty of Clemson University in 2021. The second edition will be available this summer on Amazon. These books are updated volumes of their first sports book published in 2005, serving as a reference for sports field managers, students and regulatory agencies.

Dr. Grady Miller with his wife, Lisa, after being recognized a Fellow of the Agronomy Society of America.

He’s been acknowledged for his hard work and dedication in the industry with several awards, including the SFMA Henry Daniel Founders’ Award, TPI’s Educator Award, Crop Science Society’s Fred Grau Turfgrass Award, and being named a Fellow by the Agronomy Society of America.

Dr. Miller’s career is a testament to the significant impact one individual can have on an industry. From his roots in Louisiana to his current position at N.C. State, Miller has dedicated himself to advancing turfgrass science through education, research and extension work. His legacy is cemented in his students’ achievements and advancements in turfgrass varieties and management practices.

Miller met his wife, Lisa, just as he left LSU to go to Auburn University. They dated long-distance for four years before marrying the same week he started his career at Florida. Both Louisiana natives enjoy returning to visit family and eat local cuisine. In his free time, Miller enjoys cycling, traveling, hiking and being outdoors with Lisa.

This article was written by Cecilia Johnson.

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