I sat in John Gannaway’s Lubbock, Texas, office in early August, where I’d sat many times before doing interviews on new cotton varieties he was working on and talking about where he saw the state of cotton breeding heading.
Not this time.
We were talking about where Gannaway was heading. The thought occurred to me sometime during the conversation that this would be the last interview we’d do here. And I realized that I’d miss the always enlightening visits, the information I always came away with, and the humorous exchanges we always seemed to sink to sometime during the interviews. He was always a fun subject.
Gannaway retired as the Texas A&M cotton breeder in Lubbock Aug. 31 — 34 years after he went to work for the university. He started in El Paso in 1974, but spent 29 years of his career in Lubbock.
He told me that his wife Jan asked him several years ago what his career goal was. “I said I just wanted to get the job of cotton breeder in Lubbock, Texas,” Gannaway told me. “Then she asked what I wanted to do after that, so I told her — keep it!”
He did, for just shy of three decades, during which the cotton industry changed dramatically and nowhere more so than on the High Plains of Texas, a region once known for producing a lot of cotton, but not particularly top quality.
He said he first learned about high strength cotton in El Paso and brought some samples to Lubbock. He had it graded and folks thought it was Pima. He insisted it was upland cotton and closer examination proved him right.
“That became the basis of some of the high quality cotton lines we have today,” he said.
Development of open-end spinning made high strength cotton necessary. “A lot of folks had high quality lines on the shelf, but now they could get paid for it.”
Gannaway released close to 400 germplasm lines during his 29 years at the Lubbock station. “About 15,000 pedigrees would be the most we ever screened in one year.”
Keeping track of all those pedigrees and lines offered the biggest challenge to old-school cotton breeders. “Recordkeeping was the most strenuous part of the job,” he said. “Without good records we could lose something important.”
He’s seen a picker-sack full of changes in the cotton industry since he started in the cotton business, which actually began on a farm in Haskell, Texas. “I grew up on a cotton farm,” he said. “We also had milo, some cattle and a few sheep for awhile. Sheep are undoubtedly the dumbest animals alive.”
Significant changes he’s seen in the cotton industry include variety development, crop management and harvest technology.
He said harvesting is one of the biggest transformations. “We moved from picking by hand to mechanical pickers to module builders. Now we have GPS and yield monitors. It’s amazing how the industry has evolved. I remember when we bought our first picker, but I still had to ride it and pitch the cotton into a trailer.
“I also remember that mounting the stripper on the tractor was an all-day job. Then we went to self-propelled machines.”
He recalled irrigating with siphon tubes out of dirt ditches. “That was always a challenge. The ditch would break down and we’d have to rebuild it and start all over.”
Center pivots and subsurface drip systems have taken a lot of the stress out of irrigation, he said. “In another 20 years, how much more will it change?”
He said variety development has improved tremendously, especially with seed technology.
“We used to plant fuzzy seed. I remember packing it into planter boxes and my dad making me empty out and start over. He said if I packed it too tight it wouldn’t pick up. We had no seed treatment then, nothing.
“Now, we have delinted seed, counted number of seed in the bag, seed treatments and technology in the seed. It’s hard to envision how much more they can put into a seed. I know what companies are working on now, but some bright, young mind is probably thinking about something we never envisioned.
“It will be interesting over the next 20 years to see what yield potential will do. I never thought I’d see five-bale cotton. Could it hit eight or ten or more? Well, I’m retiring to let brighter minds take it from here. I do have some pride that I may have been part of building a base they can add to.”
Gannaway was hooked on plant breeding after his first genetics class, as a junior at College Station. “I took a genetics course my junior year and found it was easy. It came naturally to me and I wanted to pursue it.”
He started while he was still in school.
“I went to A&M, got married and decided I needed a job. I talked to someone in the agronomy department and got a job in the cotton breeding program.”
He said Lubbock was the ideal place to pursue a career in cotton breeding. “Lubbock had a good program, a good station and some of the most progressive farmers in the world. It also was in the middle of the biggest cotton patch on earth.
“It’s been fun. I couldn’t have asked for a better job.”
But he said it’s time to go. “It got to the point where I knew it was time to step aside and let brighter minds, with more energy continue,” he said.
“Demands of the industry also have changed. When I started I released germplasm and companies wanted maybe one good trait they could build on. Now, with engineered traits, they want varietal stature releases without the technology traits. I never carried anything that far. I always left some variability so seed companies could adapt. Now, they just want to add the technology.”
Gannaway said he’s leaving the position in good hands. “We are lucky to have someone take over who knows the program,” he said. “Jane Dever worked here, got her bachelor’s degree, a master’s, and a doctorate through this program. She knows it, is well respected and has hit the ground running.”
He said walking away from the cotton breeding program feels “a little like leaving a child behind, but it’s not that hard with Jane coming in.”
She’s one of many students Gannaway mentored throughout his career. “It’s been an awful lot of fun working with students, young, bright minds,” he said. “It’s amazing to see them evolving, using their own creativity, developing their own thought processes and learning how to put what they get from books to work in the fields.”
He said his graduate students were always “sharp and caught on quickly. They think.” Most of his students came from farm backgrounds, but the few who didn’t also offered pleasant challenges. “We have to teach them everything,” he said.
Folks in the industry appreciate what Gannaway has done for High Plains cotton. “He had the view that the High Plains could produce better cotton than it had a reputation for,” said Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. “John Gannaway was one of the first to have a vision and then go to work to improve quality of cotton in the High Plains.”
Better quality “came to pass,” Verett said. “He was a big part of that. He had a vision and helped make it happen. Open-end spinning and demand for high strength provided an impetus.”
“Through the Plains Cotton Improvement Program John Gannaway helped steer folks,” said Roger Haldenby, PCG vice president for business affairs. “He’s been an advisor on every aspect of that program.”
“I’ll miss John,” said Dale Swinburn, a Tulia, Texas, cotton farmer who has worked with Gannaway through the Plains Cotton Improvement Program for years. “I admire him,” Swinburn said. “And that’s pretty unanimous. He had more than 300 people at his retirement dinner, a testament to his contributions to the industry.”
Swinburn said Gannaway always made time for people. “He was always receptive to answer questions and always tried to teach.
“John Gannaway has made a difference.”
“One of the great things about Dr. Gannaway is his mentoring,” said Randy Boman, Extension cotton specialist at Lubbock. “He always has time to discuss issues with other Lubbock Center faculty and graduate students. He is certainly a team player and has positively affected the outcomes of many cotton research projects as well as Extension programs over the years because of his friendly attitude, knowledge of cotton production, and his scientific skills.
“He will be missed by many at the Lubbock Center. He has worked extremely hard during his career and we wish John and his wife Jan much happiness and many years of retirement.”
Gannaway has been married to Jan since 1962. They have two grown children. John and Jan will move about 150 miles down the road, to Haskell, when they finish renovating a house. “That’s where I grew up,” he said. “I still have farming interest there; we have some land.”
His mother, who is 98 and still fairly active, lives in Haskell. “She’ll be only about a mile from our house,” he said. A brother also lives in Haskell.
He said the distance from Lubbock is also a factor. “It’s far enough to get away — far enough to break the habit of going to work every day.”
He said the possibility of doing some consulting work is not something he’s thought about a lot. “I don’t know,” he told me. “I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe. I’m looking forward to retirement. I look forward to every day being Saturday. It’s going to be fun.”
I suspect he’ll take to retirement as he did to cotton breeding, with vision, energy and dedication. And, even though we may not sit down in his Lubbock office and discuss the state of cotton breeding again, he was kind enough to invite me to stop in at his renovated home when I’m near Haskell and sip on a glass of iced tea — or something — and perhaps sample a rib or steak from the outdoor kitchen he plans on building.
Medium rare, please, John.