To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it hasn't been easy being a seed company employee, particularly one whose trademark colors are green and yellow, in recent years. Like Kermit, who grew up on the banks of the creek that meanders through Scott, Miss.-based Delta and Pine Land Co., seed company employees have been misunderstood, their motives questioned or impugned.
“In the last few years, I think there has been a concept that companies like ourselves have been focused on the transgenics; that we haven't been paying attention to the foundation of germplasm development,” Tom Kerby, director of technical services for D&PL, told a group of editors. “I just want to reiterate to you that hasn't been the case.”
Although other companies had been involved in developing transgenic traits, Delta and Pine Land became the poster child for “the seed companies are only interested in transgenics” criticism, in part, because of the flamboyant personality of its late chairman, Roger Malkin.
At the Beltwide Cotton Conferences a couple of years ago, seed companies took a shellacking from critics who complained that cotton yields had plateaued and that U.S. cotton was becoming noncompetitive because breeders weren't focusing on yield improvement.
The amazing thing was that the company folks took their whipping in relative science, knowing that varieties like DP 555 BG/RR and Stoneville's ST 5599 BR were months away from introduction.
“We felt we had some good varieties on the way, but we had not completed the testing,” Kerby said. “The worst thing we could have done would have been to talk about them and then found out they didn't live up to our expectations.”
They didn't need to worry. “I had 555 on some buckshot last year, and it picked about 1,350 pounds,” said Pete Hunter, farm manager for Stovall Farms in Clarksdale, Miss.
Quality, another perennial issue, appears to be improving with the planned introduction of varieties like DP 444 BG/RR in 2004. At another stop on the trip to Scott, Tunica County, Miss., grower Brad Cobb was elated that he was getting lengths of 36 and 37 on his 444 vs. 32 and 33 on other varieties.
If companies made mistakes, they appear to be learning from them, stressing unusual features like the “split terminal” phenomenon that sometimes occurs in 444. “Our tests indicate that it does not impact yield, but we want to make sure growers can get their hands around it when they encounter it in the field,” notes Kerby.
“We don't think we're on a plateau,” said Bill Hugie, D&PL vice president for research, responding to a question. “We're actually more excited today than we were three or four years ago. If you look at the yield, and particularly the yields with some of the fiber quality characteristics that we have in the pipeline, I think we have just broken through a yield plateau, and I don't think we will see that stopping for several years to come, in all honesty.”
Roger Malkin would have been proud.