CPP professor emerita honored as inductee into Green Industry Hall of Fame

By Lann Nguyen, Feb. 13, 2024

Professor Emerita Valerie Mellano was recently inducted to the Green Industry Hall of Fame for her career in higher education and advising farmers on environmental issues.

With over 20 years of experience Mellano has showcased her ability to mentor young people and establish programs that aim to leave a lasting impact on the future of agriculture for generations to come.

“Getting inducted is such an honor because of the group in the industry that it represents, which is a group of very innovative and hard-working people that have really shaped the landscapes and other things that we see every day,” said Mellano.

Colleagues of Mellano have high praise for the positive influence she has on Cal Poly Pomona’s department of agriculture since her arrival in 2012. This includes raising the funds and utilizing her connections in the green industry to build a 5,040-square-foot greenhouse on campus specifically used for research and insect production.

Mellano successfully collaborated with the California Department of Food and Agriculture as well as the Citrus Research Board in order to conduct research on limiting the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid insect. The specialty crops affected are crucial to California’s agricultural production and the goal is to find a solution to the problem without spraying chemicals and pesticides, especially in urban areas. Instead finding a solution to stop the spread of the insect is the primacy focus of the research conducted at CPP.

So far, the primary concern has been raising insects that will eat the Asian citrus psyllid that carry the disease that may wipe out citrus fruits.

“Mellano is such an advocate for students, for agriculture, for the industry, she is so knowledgeable,” said Anna Soper, associate professor of plant science. She took this program that was at the Plant Science Department that was kind of losing students and failing, and she took it to this new level and she increased enrollments. She got us resources and she’s just so humble about it along the way.”

It took time, money and regulations to establish the greenhouse on campus, generate interest in the agricultural department and make a lasting impact on students and faculty alike.

Photo courtesy Anna Soper.

Through endless dedication, Mellano made it her mission to mentor future leaders in the industry by providing opportunities through jobs, internships and hands-on experiences.

“She’s just a really amazing leader,” said Soper. “She doesn’t take no for an answer and because of that the students benefit.”

Soper credits her position as an associate professor at CPP to Mellano for igniting her passion for teaching and pushing her to explore this avenue after working in biological control research for years. Now Soper mentors students on research like the Asian citrus psyllid.

A highlight of Mellano’s career at CPP has been the increase in competitions students are involved in. The Turf Bowl competition includes teams from universities nationwide and tests students’ knowledge of turf grass, insects, diseases, weeds and seeds. Students have the opportunity to gain knowledge and industry exposure during these competitions.

“Say Mellano’s name in any aspect of the ornamental horticulture industry and everyone knows her, she’s very deserving of this honor,” said Soper.

Eileen Cullen, department chair for plant science credits her predecessor Mellano for recruiting excellent staff, who are now on the tenure track in the department, during her time as chairperson.

Mellano was instrumental in starting and creating positions for an urban agriculture program, a science-based production and community development minor at CPP.

“She’s innovative and sees the full range of plant science and agriculture and being that we’re in Los Angeles County, urban agriculture plays a large role in that — so in a lot of ways I credit Mellano that I’m here and part of this,” said Cullen.

Several events have become a vital part of Mellano’s legacy at CPP including the implementation of Home Depot Spring Trials and Signature Retail Internship Program. Plant breeders from across the United States and around the world bred plants for Home Depot and showcase them on campus. Students are able to shadow plant breeder experts and gain job experience through this program.

“It’s like a fashion show but for plants,” said Cullen.

The events are just a fraction of Mellano’s contributions to CPP as her career has stretched for decades from Montana to San Diego.

“Mellano would often talk one-on-one with our students and find that unique internship opportunity or job placement because she’s so well connected throughout the state and in agriculture,” said Cullen. “It was wonderful to see and it’s a culture in our department now where we are all very student centric.”

She is originally from Montana and comes from a long line of farmers and ranchers. She earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1982 and a master’s degree in plant pathology in 1983 from Montana State University. Later Mellano graduated from UC Riverside in 1988 with a Ph.D in plant pathology. She became a UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor from 1990-2012 in San Diego County which led to her becoming the County Director from 2008-2012. In 2012 she came to CPP as the Plant Science Department Professor and Chair until 2022.

This is not the first time a CPP professor has been honored by being inducted in the Green Industry Hall of Fame. The work coming out of Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture is noticed and recognized in the agricultural industry. Previous honorees inducted to the Green Industry Hall of Fame in 2015 are Donald Brinkerhoff, David L Lannom, Mark Pedicone, and Susan Sims.

Although Mellano is technically “retired” , she is nowhere near finished making her mark in the agricultural industry and continues teaching part-time at CPP. Upcoming projects she is working on include building another facility on campus within the next year called the Plant Health Lab. Its purpose is to diagnose plant diseases that are a part of the curriculum but currently have minimal space to study.

“We are trying to upgrade our facilities so that we are modernizing the experiences for our students with better equipment; don’t need to drive 50-year-old tractors all the time,” said Mellano. “We can have some better drones and things like that. We’re doing all of that so that the students get a more current experience, and they’ll have that when they go looking for jobs.”

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