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Remembering Dr. J. Neil Rutger

Remembering Dr. J. Neil Rutger

The California rice industry extends condolences to the family and friends of Dr. J. Neil Rutger, 90, of Woodland, who died peacefully on June 6, 2024.

Dr. Rutger was the former director and chief scientist of the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas. He retired after 38 years as a U.S. Department of Agriculture rice geneticist in California, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and six years on the plant-breeding faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 

Rutger was born to Frank Russell Rutger and Jennie Marie Pearce Rutger on March 3, 1934, on a farm in Noble, Ill., the last in a family of eight children. He rode a school-issued horse to attend a one-room elementary school where he was the only student. As a teenager, he rode his horse 3 miles to the bus stop, left his horse in a farmer’s barn, and then rode the school bus 10 miles to attend Noble High School, from which he graduated in 1950. 

He grew up on a farm in Illinois, the last in a family of eight children, and rode a school-issued horse to attend a one-room elementary school where he was the only student. In 1954, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he earned sharpshooter and expert marksmanship badges and the Good Conduct Medal before being honorably discharged.

Dr. Rutger attended the University of Illinois, receiving his B.S. degree in Agricultural Science in 1960. He earned his M.S. in Agronomy in 1962 and his Ph.D. in Genetics in 1964, both from the University of California, Davis (UCD). His first professional position was at Cornell University as an agronomy research scientist. He joined USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Davis in 1970, conducting rice genetics research in the UCD Department of Agronomy. 

In 1989, Dr. Rutger became associate director of the ARS Midsouth Area in Stoneville, Mississippi. In 1993, he returned to rice research as the first director of the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center. In Arkansas, Rutger initiated an indica base-broadening program to develop high-yielding indica (tropical) rice adapted to the U.S., which has been a japonica (temperate) rice-growing nation. In 2003, Dr. Rutger established the national Genetic Stocks Oryza Collection to develop and accumulate specialized genetic stocks for the U.S. rice research community.

During his career, Dr. Rutger authored or coauthored more than 200 papers and released 60 improved germplasm lines and genetic stocks. His many awards included Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also received the ARS Western Region Scientist of the Year Award, the American Nuclear Society Award for Application of Nuclear Techniques in Food Production, the UCD College of Agriculture Outstanding Alumni Award, as well as California and national rice-industry awards.

After retirement, he was inducted into the USDA-ARS Science Hall of Fame in 2009, for demonstrating the usefulness of induction, evaluation, and integration of mutants in rice genetics and breeding. In 2012 he was appointed emeritus professor at UCD.

A graveside service with military honors will be held on Friday, June 21, 10 a.m. at the Woodland Cemetery. A reception will follow at the American Legion Yolo Post 77 Hall, 523 Bush St., Woodland. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made to the Woodland Sunrise Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 8876, Woodland, CA 95776.

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