For decades the LSU AgCenter has built plant breeding programs to improve the crops that Louisiana farmers produce. These breeders have dedicated themselves to developing better plant varieties to advance the future of agriculture.
Sugarcane breeder Collins Kimbeng stands amidst potential new sugarcane varieties, which are now seedlings at the AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Sugarcane breeder Collins Kimbeng grew up in Africa on a palm oil plantation, and he remembers his father taking him as a child to meet new plant breeders, professionals held in high esteem in that industry.
“You would meet that person, and they never lasted because they were in such high demand at the time,” Kimbeng said. “That piqued my interest, and I went on and studied plant breeding.”
As a sugarcane breeder, Kimbeng has worked to improve crops in Australia, where he worked for the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations and helped produce two new varieties after sugarcane rust “wiped out the dominant variety,” he said.
“Those are some proud moments in my career,” Kimbeng said.
Kimbeng joined the LSU AgCenter in 2001. He’s proud of recent AgCenter-developed varieties that produced good amounts of sugar, but he sees a great deal of promise on the horizon as breeders have access to genes from other relatives of sugarcane.
“The future is bright,” he said. “We still have lots of traits that we can improve. The potential of sugar yields — we have not reached it yet.”
Rice breeder Adam Famoso makes a cross with rice plants in his lab at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. Photo by Bruce Schultz
Before rice breeder Adam Famoso ever heard of plant breeding, he studied forestry at Pennsylvania State University. Then a professor who bred geraniums introduced him to the idea of creating new plant varieties.
Plant breeding incorporated his love of science and plants with his desire to improve the world and help people.
“I like that you can work on something for a few years and then all of a sudden it’s actually out there in the real world and making an impact,” Famoso said.
Famoso came to the AgCenter in 2015, and he has been pleased with the varieties the breeding program has released.
“The varieties we release are what we hang our hat on,” he said. “I think the thing I’m most proud of is we’ve done a good job of implementing technologies and taking ideas and putting them into practice.”
Cotton breeder Gerald Myers counts cotton seed to send out for planting at a cotton laboratory in Baton Rouge. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Cotton breeder Gerald Myers was born into plant breeding. His father worked as a corn and soybean breeder in southern Illinois, and Myers has watched the trade become more scientific over the decades.
He began his career working overseas for the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research and joined the AgCenter in 1994. He was there when transgenic cotton — cotton with artificially introduced genes — was first developed. Now 99% of the American cotton crop is transgenic.
The cotton breeding program he directs has consistently ranked among the top programs for fiber quality in the country, and he works diligently on varieties with improved insect resistance. Now he also leads the AgCenter effort into breeding hemp varieties.
“It’s fun to look at a plant and try to synthesize all the information that led that plant to where it is now,” he said. “It started a long time ago with what parents you collected, but now it’s where you’re growing it, how densely you’re growing it and how you’ve managed it.”
Sweet potato breeder Don La Bonte discusses an LSU AgCenter-produced sweet potato, LA 14-123, a red-skinned, orange-fleshed potato. Photo by Randy LaBauve
While studying for his doctorate at the University of Illinois, Don La Bonte had trouble deciding on a focus for his career. He enjoyed so many facets of science, and he could not decide on one.
Then he found a research program in sweet corn breeding.
“With plant breeding, I never had to make a decision,” La Bonte said. “It includes all the different areas I enjoy, and I can put it all in one package.”
As a sweet potato breeder for the AgCenter since 1988, La Bonte has sought input from Louisiana growers to direct his research. Their needs have changed as consumers are buying more than just orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from the fresh vegetable aisles. Grocery stores feature sweet potatoes with multiple colors of flesh and skin. Processed sweet potato products found in the freezer aisles of stores have led to new specialized varieties. There are even ornamental sweet potatoes grown for their foliage.
“What’s interesting today is one variety does not meet all the growers’ needs,” La Bonte said. “It’s a little more segmented now.”
Wheat and oats are in Stephen Harrison’s blood. Harrison looks nostalgically at photos of himself from the 1960s hand-harvesting wheat at his father’s wheat plots in South Carolina, where his father was a plant breeder for Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company.
Harrison has been a wheat and oat breeder at the AgCenter since 1984, and he remains excited by the field.
“I would rather be out in the nursery in April than any other place I can think of,” Harrison said.
Harrison coordinates SunGrains, a collaborative regional wheat and oat breeding group that pools the resources of seven university-based programs from Texas to North Carolina. The LSU AgCenter has released 25 varieties of wheat and oats to grain farmers over the past 25 years, while the entire SunGrains group has released 25 oat, 10 triticale (a wheat and rye hybrid) and 47 wheat varieties in the past 15 years
Today the SunGrains programs devote half of their breeding efforts to developing varieties resistant to Fusarium head blight, a disease that has become a major problem for producers.
“Plant breeding is a journey and not a destination,” Harrison said. “I enjoy the fact that you have goals and objectives that are multiyear and build on each other every year.”
Soybean breeder Blair Buckley checks soybean plants at the Red River Research Station near Bossier City. AgCenter file photo
Since 2007, Blair Buckley has focused on breeding soybean varieties at the Red River Research Station near Bossier City.
Much of the AgCenter’s work on soybean development is directed at Cercospora leaf blight, which is encouraged by warm and wet weather. Some varieties are now showing resistance to the fungi that cause the disease.
The optimal soybean would have resistance to this disease and others and would tolerate drought and salt well, Buckley said in an interview in 2014. It would also be able to withstand insects and yield a large crop.
“So much of plant breeding is a numbers game,” Buckley said in 2014. “There is a lot of material to go through, and much of it does not make it through to the next level.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant LSU AgCenter Communications specialist.
(This article appears in the spring 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)