From City Politics to Plant Pathology

Megan Hall’s viticulture appointment is a partnership between Grape and Wine Institute, Division of Plant Sciences

As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Megan Hall would have never envisioned spending her career in various vineyards throughout the United States.

Hall earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, eventually getting involved in city politics in New York. She worked for a city council member in the Bronx – and it was during that time that Hall, a Portland, Oregon, native, realized she missed the outdoors. She eventually began working in a vineyard in Oregon, which led to numerous opportunities, including her most recent appointment as an assistant research professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri. Hall celebrated her one-year anniversary in her current role this January.

“I definitely have a weird background,” Hall said. “That’s what I love about the wine industry, though. Individuals come from a variety of backgrounds and bring different experiences. It’s a welcoming place to come to with your weird background.”

I definitely have a weird background. That’s what I love about the wine industry, though. Individuals come from a variety of backgrounds and bring different experiences. It’s a welcoming place to come to with your weird background.

Megan Hall

Hall was born in Toronto and her family moved to Portland when she was a toddler. As she began her collegiate career in Canada, Hall was very focused on working for the United Nations. She had a passion for languages and travelling and began working toward those goals. After finishing her bachelor’s, she attended York University in Toronto and earned her master’s in socio-legal studies.

“I really loved the sociology component of what I was doing,” Hall said. “I was really interested in cities and development. This also served as my introduction into urban agriculture and what you could do with plants in different spaces.”

Hall’s transition to agriculture happened as she was working for a state senate campaign in Long Island. As she drove from her apartment on the lower eastside to work each day, she realized she wanted to escape the office life and spend more time in nature.

“One day it just hit me – I really missed being outside,” Hall said. “Oregon is full of big trees and mountains. I missed that.”

Hall began doing research and reading articles related to outdoor careers. An article highlighting female winemakers and vineyard managers caught her eye. She didn’t have any viticulture experience, but the work looked interesting.

“I actually got in touch with a boy that I went to kindergarten with,” Hall said. “His parents owned REX HILL, one of the largest wine producers in Oregon. They welcomed me to come out and start working on the sorting line, just to try it out. I packed up my apartment in New York and drove straight to Oregon.”

Hall realized right away that she had found a new passion. She began taking courses at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon, which had a vineyard management program. Hall earned an internship at REX HILL and was a regular in the vineyard.

“As I spent more and more time in the vineyard, I saw that the one of the biggest components as a manager was how to control disease,” Hall said. “If you scout those diseases and control them, there is a greater likelihood of having clean fruit at the end of the growing season.”

Hall was working on a degree in microbiology at Portland State University when an opportunity to do graduate work at Cornell University opened up. She earned her Ph.D. in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at Cornell in December 2017 and began at Mizzou a month later.

Hall’s research focus at Cornell was on a grape disease called sour rot. She did a good portion of her research at the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Sour rot is an odd disease complex,” Hall said. “It’s poorly studied and understood. It was fun to dig in. Most everything we found out was new information. While we did find a lot of answers, there are still a lot of open questions.”

As an applied scientist, I try to tie everything I do to things that are applicable and relevant to growers.

Megan Hall

Hall’s appointment in CAFNR is in viticulture, a collaborative partnership between the Grape and Wine Institute (GWI) and the Division of Plant Sciences. In her first year at MU she has established her lab, which includes two graduate students and a technician. Hall’s lab is currently in the middle of three research projects, including a deeper dive into sour rot.

“Things are going really well,” Hall said. “There has definitely been a transition period. I feel like we’ve hit the ground running, though. We’re up and running and making science happen.

“While my background is in disease work, I’m working with grapes in general. I’m doing anything pertaining to grape growing.”

Hall’s lab is also working on grapevine trunk diseases, which includes a variety of pathogens. Hall’s main focus is looking at whether young vines are susceptible to the diseases as it seems to be most common in older vines. The third unique research project taking place in the lab is looking at the microbes that actually live inside the grape berries and how those may or may not impact wine quality.

“As an applied scientist, I try to tie everything I do to things that are applicable and relevant to growers,” Hall said.

The grapes Hall works with are grown at three of CAFNR’s Agricultural Research Centers – the Southwest Research Center in Mt. Vernon, the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin, and the South Farm Research Center in Columbia.

Hall also works closely with the Missouri Grape and Wine Board on projects and possible research opportunities.

“I get to interact regularly with the board and research council,” Hall said. “I also get to work closely with growers and winemakers. I get to know what’s important to them and how we can help. They know our areas of expertise and it’s a great partnership. There’s always an open line of communication.”

Hall said she is continuing to learn more about the Missouri grape and wine industry. While there are some differences from the vineyards in Oregon, Hall said a willingness to work with her has made the transition much easier.

“It’s definitely a close-knit group of people,” Hall said. “It’s been very positive and exciting. As a graduate student, that’s your entire identity. When you have your own lab, you have to form a new identity. You’re not riding anyone’s coattails anymore. We have a good team moving forward. Our focus is to get research and information out and build the body of knowledge in our lab.”