By Kate Griswold
While trying to figure out who she was during her teenage years, Emily Haga discovered plants. She wanted to learn about her culture and ancestry and in doing so she learned to cook, make art and enjoyed being in nature. She volunteered at a natural and local farm and worked at a natural food store in her hometown, just south of Madison. All her experiences led to an interest and passion for food and gardening.
“I was hooked on vegetables and plant diversity. The more I learned about plants, the more I felt connected to the people I came from, the food I was eating and the land I lived on,” Haga stated.
No stranger to the University of Wisconsin, Haga pursued her interest in plants and completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW–Madison. Her undergraduate degree was in horticulture while her graduate studies focused on plant breeding and genetics.
As an undergraduate, Haga completed independent research on plant flowering time and research on pepper germplasm adaptation for the shorter growing season in Wisconsin. During her graduate work, she completed a multi-year field study on early blight resistance in potatoes.
Today, Haga is a plant breeder for Johnny’s Selected Seeds where she works on tomatoes, lettuce and peppers. At Johnny’s she develops new varieties to support small scale farmers and growers and looks at trends in the market to meet the future needs of these growers.
“It involves a passion for both plants and people. Everybody is trying to make a difference and we all need to work together to bring our unique contributions to the table. We need all types of people to solve different parts of this agricultural puzzle.”
Although her interest was in plants, she said she hadn’t planned on becoming a plant breeder but she liked the idea of preserving and yet creating new genetic diversity in crops.
Deciding to purse plant breeding didn’t come as a lightbulb decision; Haga attended multiple conferences, field days, plant breeder meetings and visited different gene banks across the United States during school. Through these experiences she realized how much of a multi-disciplinary study this field was and liked that it combined a lot of her passions from youth.
Haga encourages other graduate students to jump at the opportunities offered. Whether it is a lab job, independent study, or capstone experience, she says, “Get out in the world, meet new people and see what is available to you.”