The irony of the two responsibilities in his job as professor of entomology at North Carolina State University is not lost upon Rick Brandenburg.
“It’s almost laughable,” he admits.
In one role, Brandenburg finds himself roaming carpet-like fairways and putting greens on some of the South’s grandest golf courses. In the other role, he’s walking on dirt – African soil, that is – so inferior that it might not even warrant growing the peskiest of weeds.
“One week I might be walking through mud hut villages in Africa and the next week I might be walking on Pinehurst No. 2. It’s like going from Mars to Jupiter,” Brandenburg says of his job.
The co-director of N.C. State’s Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education, Brandenburg has been invited to speak about turfgrass insects throughout the U.S. and in nearly 20 countries. He loves the golf course management industry and feels privileged to work in it. But it’s his job as a field crop advisor in Africa that’s changed his life – while also humbling him in the process.
Brandenburg is assisting the poorest of the poor in Africa, people that survive on less than $1 a day, a level of poverty not seen in the U.S.
But he says they are people no different than anybody else.
“They care about the same things as us, they’re concerned about the same things as us, and the reality is that they just want to give their families a fighting chance like we do,” Brandenburg says.
When he was a kid, the 60-year-old Brandenburg was a fan of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” hosted by zoologist Marlon Perkins. Much of the show took place in Africa, and the continent intrigued Brandenburg, who vowed to travel there someday.
To date, Brandenburg has been to Africa about 50 times since 1996, traveling mostly to Ghana and South Africa. But recently he has been to Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. But it really doesn’t matter what country he goes to.
“This has become a passion for me,” he says.
As a field crop advisor, Brandenburg is helping to develop projects to make agriculture more sustainable for local farmers. His work isn’t about handing out money to help them improve their agricultural methods – it’s about instilling them with knowledge through sound science so they can grow healthier crops.
“When the villages produce more crops, they can sell more and have a little more money,” Brandenburg says.
When that happens, it makes Brandenburg’s day.
“You can see the difference in people’s attitudes because they know that somebody cares about them,” he says.
Back to the golf course industry and its green turf, which, as Brandenburg notes, is like being in another world when compared to being on a barren African field. But Brandenburg is just as humbled to help an African farmer as he is helping a golf course superintendent.
“It’s a privilege to be invited into one of the villages and for people to say thank you for the help,” he says. “And it’s a privilege to be asked to come to Pinehurst and provide information to help keep it at a high level.”
Brandenburg is thankful that his job affords him the opportunity to do two things so differently and to have an impact on both.
Irony, indeed, but to Brandenburg it’s about getting to experience the best of both worlds.
COVER PHOTO: RICK BRANDENBURG