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It was a rare opportunity that landed Thomas Molnar a summer job at the age of 18 assisting professor C. Reed Funk GSNB’62, the legendary plant breeder at Cook College. It is even more remarkable that the entry-level position evolved into a life’s work, the fruits of which may have the potential to help meet two of the world’s most pressing needs: food security and sustainable fuel.

Now an assistant professor at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Molnar CC’00, GSNB’06 vividly recalls his introduction to plant breeding in the summer of 1996. It was the year that Funk, who had spent decades developing patent-winning grass varieties, turned his attention to nut-bearing trees.

At the time, Molnar wanted to become a wildlife biologist. But after reading a book Funk gave him about the unexploited potential of trees to produce food, he reconsidered. “He opened my eyes, and I saw the potential to really make a contribution,” Molnar says.

Together, they launched an ambitious program to breed hardy, productive nut trees that could flourish on marginal land in the sometimes harsh climate of the Northeast. Hazelnut trees, which are uniquely capable of thriving on rocky hillsides, soon became their primary focus. The challenge was to cross the disease-resistant American variety with foreign varieties that produced much higher yields.

Perhaps the biggest threat to their success was funding. To win grants, they needed to show promising results, but new breeds of trees can take more than a decade to produce. Because he believes so deeply in the program’s significance, Funk has invested far more than his time and knowledge to sustain it. His financial contributions, a mix of personal checks written at critical junctures and donations of turfgrass patent royalties, total more than $114,000. Without them, the research might have been abandoned prematurely—the implications of which go far beyond the fate of one endeavor at Rutgers.

“Worldwide, food security is going to be of increasing importance as the population grows,” Funk says. “Through losses of agricultural land, development, and erosion, we’re going to be faced with severe shortages.”

When Funk retired in 2003, Molnar took over their breeding program, though Funk remains involved. Since then, the research has progressed to an important stage. Last year, Molnar began the first trials in farmers’ fields, planting the rare trees that appeared to have the most potential.

Before we started this program, you couldn’t grow hazelnuts in the Northeast,” Molnar says. “All of those first trees died. Now we’re looking at fields loaded with trees that are full of nuts.”

Six years ago, the Arbor Day Foundation approached Molnar with a plan to start a consortium dedicated to enhancing the adaptation and usefulness of hazelnuts as a sustainable crop for food, feed, and oil across a wide area of the United States and Canada. The consortium also includes Oregon State University and the University of Nebraska. This milestone would never have been possible without Funk’s persistent financial support.

On his reasons for giving back, Funk says, “Rutgers has been very good to me. When I came here, I was a farm boy from the West, and I really appreciated the opportunities I was given. I got a lot of freedom and support.” Clearly proud of his protégé, he adds, “And I feel the university has recognized the great ability Tom has.”

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Star-Ledger Photographs, Newark, NJ.

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