In 1979, North Dakota State University’s dry bean breeding program launched with a small grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). A year later, Ken Grafton accepted a position as a post-doctoral research associate, and in 1981 he became a faculty member and leader of the dry bean breeding program.
As bean acreage increased across the state, so did the need for new regional bean varieties. In response to this growing demand, Ken evaluated and released two new pinto bean cultivars — “Nodak” in 1983 and “Holberg” in 1984 — in collaboration with bean pathologist D.W. Burke at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Prosser, Washington.
Over time, NDSU released 11 new varieties of dry beans with Ken’s expertise and guidance at the helm. These varieties include “Norstar” navy bean, which was the most widely grown navy bean in the region and the first dry bean cultivar developed and released by NDSU; “Maverick” pinto bean, which was the most widely grown pinto bean in the state; and “Eclipse,” the leading black bean grown in North Dakota and one of the dominant cultivars grown in the United States. He was also involved in the development and release of more than 30 dry bean germplasm lines for production in the northern Great Plains. Today, NDSU’s breeding program has become the largest producer of dry beans in the United States.
“Dr. Grafton took a brand-new program with no field or lab equipment and with limited funding to one with its current level of national prominence,” Richard Horsley, NDSU professor and head of the Plant Sciences department, said.
During his 40-year career at NDSU, Ken held many roles ranging from full professor to interim provost. Some of his most notable positions include vice president for Agricultural Affairs; dean of the College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources; and director of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station (NDAES), where he oversaw research activities at seven Research Extension Centers across the state, the Main Station in Fargo, and the Agronomy Seed Farm.
As director of the NDAES, Ken worked with the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education (SBARE) to help expand the agency and raise funds for capital projects including the Beef Cattle Research Complex, the Jack Dalrymple Agricultural Research Complex, the Senator Bill Bowman Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, seed cleaning facilities, and new or improved field research laboratories and headquarter buildings. Together with the SBARE, Ken also advanced several important initiatives focusing on critical areas of research and infrastructure at the Main Station and all the Research Extension Centers.
Ken has continually sought opportunities to benefit the citizens of North Dakota through research, outreach, and advocacy. He worked diligently to provide local bean commodity groups with clear and relevant information about dry bean cultivar performance trials, production, disease control, and management throughout the growing season. He also assisted with lobbying efforts to fund $1.2 million for the National Sclerotinia Initiative (NSI) aimed at neutralizing white mold’s economic threat for edible dry beans, sunflower, soybean, canola, chickpeas, lentils, and dry peas.
“During more than 15 years of contributions to his discipline and the agricultural industry, Dr. Grafton became one of the most visible, knowledgeable, and respected leaders not just at NDSU but in the entire state,” Dean Bresciani, distinguished professor and former NDSU president, said. “His expertise, focus on contributing in the most substantial ways possible, and loyalty to NDSU and the field of agriculture are well-known and without parallel.”
In each of his roles, Ken prioritized relationships. He sought synergistic partnerships with student organizations, stakeholders, state and federal legislators, commodity groups, colleges, agencies, and industry as he promoted the values and needs of the University and state.
“Ken is a caring, listening, and sincere individual who is naturally adept at supporting and mentoring those around him,” Dean said.
Ken earned his B.S. in agriculture and his M.S. in plant breeding and genetics from The Ohio State University and his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Missouri. His scholarly achievements in teaching, research, publications, grants, awards, and service to NDSU and the industry have elevated agribusiness in North Dakota and beyond.