Connecting industry and research is one of Dr. Joseph Albano’s passions. This drive to provide relevant information where it’s most needed will propel the Horticultural Research Institute into an exciting future.

Dr. Joseph Albano, Research Programs Director for the Horticultural Research Institute.
Photo courtesy of Joseph Albano

Joseph Albano didn’t train to be an engineer, but he’s building bridges nonetheless. As the new Research Programs Director for AmericanHort and the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), Albano’s aim is to connect green industry professionals with green industry researchers, providing those in the field with the most relevant, practical and up-to-date information they need to do the best job possible. It’s what HRI is all about, and it’s what Albano has been doing for most of his career. A bit of background

Albano brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to his position, having earned advanced degrees in horticulture and plant physiology with a specialty in micronutrient stress—as he describes it, “micronutrient deficiency and toxicity stress in horticulture crops.” Between his undergraduate degree and his graduate work, however, he took a short break from studies to concentrate on “regular business” with his family’s winery in Tampa, Fla. “My brother, Michael, and I ran that,” he says. “My brother got a degree in enology and I got a degree in viticulture at California State University-Fresno, and he made the wine and I grew the grapes.” When the vineyard and winery didn’t need my attention, I worked sales. I got a little bit of business experience under my belt.”

A couple of years into his business career, a former professor moved to Clemson University from the University of Florida and asked Albano to join her as technician. At Clemson, Albano says, “I worked my way through grad school. It took me about eight years to get my MS in Horticulture and my Ph.D. in Plant Physiology under the advisement of Dr. William “Bill” Miller (now with Cornell University), but I didn’t owe any money. I didn’t take Federal loans; I didn’t borrow any money from my parents, though they offered. I worked my way through.”

Ph.D. in hand, Albano left Clemson for a post-doctoral fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where he worked for the CDC’s Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Using GIS and image analysis technology, I worked on Superfund and brownfield sites,” he explains, “so I got a very good exposure to issues related to environmental toxicology.”

Soon, though, there was a job back in Florida that called to him, and in 1999 Albano moved to Fort Pierce and signed on with the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory (USHRL) in Fort Pierce run by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), under the directorship of Dr. Calvin Arnold. The position of research horticulturist “was perfect for what I had been doing at Clemson—my graduate work—and what I had done for my post-doc,” Albano states. He was involved with the ARS’s National Programs 211 (Water Availability and Watershed Management) and 305 (Crop Production), whose aims, according to the agency, are to “effectively and safely manage water resources while protecting the environment and human and animal health” and “increase cropping efficiency, productivity, quality, marketability, and protection of annual, perennial, greenhouse,and nursery crops while maintaining or enhancing worker safety and environmental quality”, respectively. Albano worked within the Integrated Sustainable Crop Production Systems component of these projects, where he concentrated on plant nutrition and water quality research.Making a difference at ARS

It was a productive 14 years – both for Albano and for the greater green industry – during which he built an ornamental research program at USHRL where one did not previously exist. This was accomplished, he adds, “with the assistance of the best technician a scientist could ask for, Mr. Chris Lasser.” Practical application of research has always been his goal, and his projects with ARS included the identification of a biodegradable chelating agent used for formulating commercial fertilizers, as well as work on composted algae as an alternative potting substrate for floriculture and nursery crops.

“And I was involved in a fairly large project that was based out of [the University of California at] Riverside,” Albano elaborates, “where we took the most common CRF fertilizers and we looked at their nutrient release characteristics under different potting substrate chemistries in different environments, such as on a nursery and in a greenhouse. The research team received OFA’s Alex Laurie Award for outstanding research for the work; this was Albano’s second Alex Laurie Award.

“I also was part of the technical review team for the new USDA plant hardiness zone map,” he continues. “And I served as administrator and lead scientist for a multistate, multiyear Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI) project. It was officially called ‘Environmental and Resource Management,’ but most people referred to it as ‘The Water Project.’ The goal of that project was water quality protection and water conservation in the production of nursery crops, very simply.”

Just prior to his departure from ARS – to move to the Washington, D.C. area and assume the HRI role – he had undertaken research to develop algal turf scrubber technology to clean runoff water of excess nutrients, then process the resulting algae into compost that could be used as an alternative substrate for growing container crops. It was a five-year project (through ARS’ Office of Scientific Quality Review [OSQR] process) that had won a perfect score during the anonymous peer-review process, and it was driven by Albano’s passion for water quality research.

But the Horticultural Research Institute position offered an opportunity to expand on his work to build stronger bridges between academic research and practical use. He had reached out to the industry on his own, making connections with horticulture professionals wherever and whenever he could.

“While I was at ARS,” Albano says, “I engaged primarily in research that would have fairly quick relevance and impact to the grower. I took every opportunity to meet with the local Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association chapter, and it was through those interactions that I came to know the importance of bridging the growers with researchers. They loved having me there, because they loved seeing the research and they loved knowing that research was being conducted with them in mind. That was something that I really incorporated into myself.”Facilitating research through HRI

Joseph Albano joined AmericanHort to serve the Horticultural Research Institute as Research Programs Director last November, shortly before the final consolidation of the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) and OFA – The Association of Horticulture Professionals, which resulted in AmericanHort. Now that he has taken the helm of the Horticultural Research Institute, managed by AmericanHort, his role has changed from that of lead researcher to chief liaison. His wealth of industry and academic contacts provides the organization with a broad base of research possibilities, just as the Horticultural Research Institute provides Albano with an expanded arena in which to promote practical research projects. Here he can build upon the network he’s created and strengthen those connections between scientific study and real world application.

A typical day, at least for now, involves a lot of reading, although he kids that he’s still getting used to his new headquarters. Referring to his arrival just in time for an unusually wicked winter, he says, “Maybe I haven’t been in the saddle long enough, but my day starts with realizing that I’m not in Florida anymore, followed by navigating Metro into the District (D.C.). But seriously, my day involves reviewing grant proposals; those funded by HRI and other proposals that come across my desk. For the HRI-funded proposals, I stay in contact with the principal investigators to ensure that the work proposed is going as planned, and if there are any deviations or problems with research that I need to know about.”

He communicates with administrators of the USDA-ARS Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI; Drs. Gail Wisler and Sally Schneider) and Society of American Florists (SAF; Lin Schmale) in order to stay current with other green industry projects. Coordination among funding agencies, he believes, serves the industry as a whole.

“I do receive and review other proposals, some originating from HRI grant proposals that were not funded, and I have had come across my desk some proposals that are geared toward the FNRI side of things,” he explains. “I try to provide feedback and encourage principal investigators. Especially for proposals that weren’t funded, I try to provide feedback on how they could improve their proposals, and I encourage them to resubmit them the following year. For some proposals, I try to connect researchers with other sources of funding, like through FNRI.”

Occasionally, a proposal that holds promise for the industry fails to make the funding cut, for any of a number of reasons. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the research proposed isn’t worth pursuing. For example, a recent proposal was declined by the HRI review committee—by a very slight margin—but Albano believed that the basic concept had merit. “This was a really good proposal on gray water use for producing nursery container plants,” he says. “And so I’ve been working with the principal investigator on trying to reformat the proposal, to include other researchers, and to broaden the scope of the proposal. I’d run it by administrators at ARS that this project came to my attention: It deals with water quality, and I believe that this is a project of great importance to our industry. And I proposed that we consider this as part of FNRI funding.”

He adds: “So that’s one of the things that I think is my job, too, is to try to connect researchers with funding sources, no matter where that would be, and also connect researchers with other expertise that might be required to conduct the research.”

Although there’s no formal working agreement between HRI and FNRI, ANLA was directly involved in helping to fund the program. “ANLA and SAF led lobbying efforts to get the money,” Albano explains, “so USDA-ARS takes our input on projects. Ultimately it is USDA dollars, so they have the final say, but I have the opportunity to review proposals and recommend research for funding.”What lies ahead

Facilitating horticultural research across the country requires familiarity with critical issues, current research and the researchers themselves. Broad knowledge of the industry is a must.

“That’s one of the things I think I bring to this position; that my 10-year involvement with the Horticultural Research Institute through the USDA-ARS-FNRI has really given me a good sense of what is being done where,” Albano states. “Especially in the realm of plant nutrition and water quality, I have a very good grasp on what’s being done and by whom. That’s vital in developing teams and coordinating research efforts between the different researchers.”

It’s evolutionary

A lot has changed in a relatively short amount of time: The American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and OFA – The Association of Horticulture Professionals consolidated to form AmericanHort, which then formally adopted ANLA’s Horticultural Research Institute. Marc Teffeau, HRI’s previous research director, retired, and following a nationwide search, Joseph Albano was hired to take the helm. Albano joined the staff in November 2013, just a month and a half before the consolidation became final. “Marc Teffeau was like a mentor to me,” Albano states. “I had worked with him on this fairly large Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI) project for probably 10 years, and we developed a really good rapport, and he taught me a lot. It’s an honor to be able to step in and continue what he had started.”

Albano is joined by Jennifer Gray, who previously worked for the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association. She now holds the position of HRI’s Research Programs Administrator and works in the Columbus, Ohio, office of AmericanHort.

Other key personnel overseeing AmericanHort and HRI include Michael Geary, CAE, President/CEO; Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President – Industry Advocacy and Research; and Joe Bischoff, Regulatory & Legislative Affairs Director.