Fred Yelverton, Ph.D., one of the world’s pre-eminent applied turfgrass weed specialists with a long track record of working with superintendents, is the winner of
GCSAA’s 2023 Outstanding Contribution Award.Photos by Montana Pritchard
Fred Yelverton Ph.D. did not set out to become one of the world’s preeminent applied turfgrass weed specialists.
It’s not a profession for which he was genetically predisposed, nor did he necessarily have a mind-snapping epiphany, a sudden realization that he wanted to carve out a long, decorated career in the study, education — and, crucially, practical management — of turfgrass weeds.
“It’s not like I was all set on this from out of the gate,” says Yelverton, professor and Extension specialist at North Carolina State University and winner of GCSAA’s 2023 Outstanding Contribution Award. “You could say it was a fortuitous arrival.”
While Yelverton was speaking about his own personal feelings about the happenstance that brought him to the turfgrass industry, it’d be fair to say the feeling is overwhelmingly mutual.
In nominating his former classmate, co-educator and longtime friend for the award in its sophomore season (Kansas State’s Jack Fry, Ph.D., was the inaugural recipient last year), Bert McCarty, Ph.D., tried to quantify some of Yelverton’s seemingly countless contributions. Among the laundry list of accomplishments, Yelverton has: conducted more than 500 field, greenhouse and laboratory studies; trained more than 20 graduate students in classical and contemporary turfgrass weed science, five of whom are now professors at other universities working on turfgrass research; given more than 500 presentations at the local, regional, national and international levels.
And those are just the quantifiables.
“The numbers really stand out,” says McCarty, professor of turfgrass science and management at Clemson University who has co-taught Advanced Weed Management with Yelverton at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show every year since 1995 (except for the 2021 virtual event), making it the conference and show’s longest-running workshop. “That and all the help he has given to individuals, all the presentations and site visits, I think makes Dr. Yelverton the No. 1 weed specialist in the world in dealing with turfgrasses. Combined with his relentless contributions to the industry, his determination and drive and wanting to see people succeed … he’s just the whole ball of wax.”
Agriculture, not golf, was Yelverton’s first interest as he pursued his graduate degrees at N.C. State. But he soon found a home on the greens, tees and fairways.
‘Just casting a net’
Though Yelverton makes clear this wasn’t a career path upon which he set himself mindfully, it’s not much of a stretch to see how he stumbled upon it.
Having grown up on his family tobacco farm and having acquired a bit of agricultural acumen and, importantly, a farm worker’s work ethic, Yelverton set off in 1977 for a short-lived stint at East Carolina University.
“I enjoyed it, but there wasn’t anything there I wanted to do,” he says. “They didn’t really have a major that really suited me for what I wanted to do. I started looking around, and North Carolina State had a zoology major. I wanted to work outside and do something with nature.”
So that 1981 N.C. State Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife biology was part of a grand plan?
“Hell no,” Yelverton says. “I was just casting a net. Most people, when they’re undergrads, don’t know what they want to do.”
Still uncertain, Yelverton thought back to his farming roots — the farm is still in the family, though Yelverton says it doesn’t have much to do with its operation other than “cashing rent checks” — and thought maybe agriculture was the way.
He got his master’s from NCSU in weed science in 1984 and started working for county Extension.
“I did all the field crops, horticulture, turf, everything else,” he says. “I was a jack of all trades.”
He returned to N.C. State in 1986 to begin work on his doctorate in weed science, which he completed in 1990. He worked five years, until 1995, as an Extension specialist at NCSU, working on reducing pesticide residues in crops.
“Then this position came open,” Yelverton said of the opportunity to become turfgrass weed scientist in the Crop Science Department at North Carolina State. “I thought, ‘I like turfgrass. I like to play golf. Sounds like a cool position.’ That’s what attracted me to the position.”
Though opportunities have come along for him to consider leaving behind his alma mater three times over … well, “I’ve always enjoyed it here,” Yelverton says. “I never intended to stay right here. I’ve had some job offers, but I’ve never found anything better than what I’m doing.”
‘He knows what he’s talking about’
Say this about Fred Yelverton: He knows how to make a first impression.
Just ask Shawn Emerson, a 32-year retired Class A GCSAA member who served 25 years as director of agronomy at Desert Mountain Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Now an associate principal for agronomic services at Ethos Club and Leisure, Emerson recalls an early-2000s conference call conversation with Yelverton and the late famed agronomist James Beard, Ph.D. Emerson and Beard were in Emerson’s office,
while Yelverton was phoning in from his office at N.C. State, some 2,000 miles away.
The three were discussing prevention and control of Poa annua on golf courses, and the two doctors didn’t exactly see eye to eye.
“Fred was on the phone trying to explain to Dr. Beard, who was the leading scientist in turf in the world at the time, he was trying to explain just why he wasn’t correct in thinking about how to remove ryegrass in transition,” Emerson
says with a chuckle. “Dr. Beard just kept questioning Fred, and it was like pingpong listening to Fred answer Dr. Beard while still being respectful.
“What Fred doesn’t realize is, after I hung up the phone, Dr. Beard said, ‘He’s our man. He knows what he’s talking about. I was just engaging him to make sure he knew what we needed to do.’”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that the two came to be good friends before Beard’s death in 2018.
“He and I got along really well,” Yelverton said. “We talked about things that didn’t have to do with turf, too. People didn’t realize it, but Dr. Beard was a big fisherman, and so am I. We talked fishing a lot and had a
good friendship. The other thing is, we’d challenge one another. I don’t mean that like we’d argue, but we’d talk. ‘You think this. Have you thought about this?’ That’s the way two turfgrass scientists should
talk, and it was great. I miss Jim.”
Yelverton wasn’t only making favorable first impressions on world-class scientists.
Salomòn Valles, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Five Forts Golf Club in St. George’s, Bermuda, was new to the golf course management business when he attended his first GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in 1999, where Yelverton was teaching
what became one of the first — and most memorable — turfgrass seminars of Valles’ career.
“Dr. Fred … really impressed me with his presentation and knowledge on the subject,” says Valles, a seven-year GCSAA member. “Since then, I have always followed his studies and articles. He is one of the persons who dedicated
his life to this industry.”
Yelverton makes a point during the Advanced Weed Management seminar at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Orlando last month. Co-presented with Clemson’s Bert McCarty, Ph.D., the seminar is the longest-running workshop at the GCSAA event and shows no signs of slowing down now.
Ask McCarty to name Yelverton’s biggest contributions to the industry, and you can almost hear the gears turn.
He ticks off some of the biggies, like Yelverton’s success in training graduate students and his co-authorship on a pair of must-have reference books — “Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses,” the most successful Cooperative Extension
for-sale publication ever with 20,000 sold to date; and “Color Atlas of Turfgrass Weeds,” the only text dedicated to weed identification and control recommendations for most common turfgrass weeds throughout the world.
What about Yelverton’s distinction of being the first weed scientist to recognize and address herbicide resistance in turf?
“Oh, that’s a big one,” McCarty says. “I’m glad you brought that up.”
Herbicide resistance was, and has been, a huge issue in agriculture, but it wasn’t a proven concern in turfgrass until Yelverton encountered it in the mid-1990s in the form of resistant Poa annua at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C., and resistant
goosegrass at Pinehurst’s No. 2 course.
“At the time, it was a big deal in field crops, in row-crop agriculture,” Yelverton says. “We knew they had some resistance issues, so there was no reason to think resistance wouldn’t be an issue in turf. So, I’m not surprised
we found it. What does surprise me is, if you had told me in 1995 that this would be an issue today, I would have been shocked. Herbicide resistance is really one of the huge issues facing golf courses and turfgrass managers. I’m a weed scientist,
so I’m looking at it through that lens, but it’s arguably the biggest issue facing agriculture. Herbicide resistance is really a huge, huge issue.”
For his part, Yelverton considers his work with the Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education — or CENTERE — at N.C. State to be among his biggest contributions. He’s its co-director and had a huge role in the group’s
But first, the back story.
Back in 1999, Yelverton recalls, the government of North Carolina was looking to enhance revenues. At the time, there was a decades-old law still on the books that made farmers exempt from sales tax on feed and fertilizer. Though it benefitted farmers
and turfgrass managers, it also meant homeowners weren’t charged sales tax on, say, a bag of fertilizer bought at the neighborhood Lowe’s, and the state was considering closing that loophole to boost the state coffers. Representatives
from North Carolina State and others in the industry spoke with legislators and cut a deal.
“They said they wouldn’t fight closing that loophole if (the state) would assign $600,000 to turfgrass research at North Carolina State,” Yelverton says. “It was a loophole they were in danger of losing anyway. So, they closed
the loophole for the turfgrass industry, and we got $600,000 for turfgrass research. I think it worked out great. Everybody’s really happy with it. You know, $600,000 times 22 years … that’s sponsored a lot of research at North
Yelverton is quick to point out he was just one key player.
“I didn’t do it by myself,” he says. “It was a good marriage between academia, industry and government, one of those agreements that actually works to everybody’s benefit. And I think it really speaks to the forward-looking
nature of the turfgrass industry. They said, ‘OK, we’ll pay more tax. We’re going to pay sales tax on fertilizer. But at the same time, we’re going to get a lot of benefits from turfgrass research.’”
Extension work and connecting with end users has always been important to Yelverton. Here, he addresses the topic of new herbicide technologies for turfgrass weed management during a recent field day at N.C. State. Photo courtesy of N.C. State Extension.
‘Everybody loved him’
Yelverton says working with golf course superintendents has been the most rewarding part of his career.
“We are all in the problem-solving business, and it is very gratifying to help golf course superintendents, assistants and associated industry personnel do their jobs,” he says. “It’s really been a great career. It’s really
been fun. It’s fun finding out new things, helping people in their jobs. That’s the educator part of it. It’s been great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Emerson says Yelverton has a particular knack for turning cutting-edge information into actionable practice.
“The hard part about dealing with Fred is, you’d call a distributor or company and say, ‘Hey, I need to do this,’ and they’ll give you a different recommendation,” Emerson says. “Sometimes, he’d know more
than they did. I’d have a distributor or manufacturer come up to me and say, ‘What did Fred tell you to do?’
“What Fred is very good at is, he’s one of the best people in the world to take results from a lab on campus and make it work on a golf course. He brought lab science to real-world practice on a golf course. Sometimes you need an interpreter.
You don’t speak the same language. That’s not an issue with Fred. At Desert Mountain, we had these classes with Fred and our assistants and superintendents. He was always engaging. Students, assistant, interns — everybody loved him.”
Bob Farren, CGCS, Pinehurst’s director of golf course and ground management, 42-year association member and 2022 winner of GCSAA’s Col. John Morley Award, does, too.
“Dr. Yelverton has become the gold standard for his contributions for the success of countless superintendents over the many years of his service to our industry,” Farren says.
“I’ve been around a lot of award-winners,” adds Emerson, “and Fred is as deserving as anybody I know. And he loves his family. As high as he goes in the world, he has always been grounded in family.”
Yelverton and Kimberly, his wife since 1985, have one son, Gray, who is following in his father’s footsteps. Sort of.
Gray Yelverton is just beginning grad school, but …
“He’s going to be a turf pathologist,” Fred Yelverton says with a laugh. “He certainly couldn’t do what dad did. Being a weed scientist isn’t cool enough.”
Andrew Hartsock (email@example.com) is GCM’s senior managing editor.