Conversation with a plant breeder

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Gil:
I know you're from a Illinois farm. Could you give me a little background on where you grew up?
Sam:
West-Central Illinois, so if you take the Galesburg, Peoria and Macomb triangle and that part of the state, we're sort of in the middle. So Fulton county is the county we're in. A little town of Ellisville and Avon. Avon's where I went to school at. So family farm actually, there's four brothers and we are the sixth generation, on the family farm. Two of my brothers still farm today, in the operation. My mom's still on the family farm. So that's cool. And it was your classic, when I was growing up, grain and livestock operations, a lot of cattle, a lot of hogs, corn, soybeans, couple thousand acres of row crops. And still that way today, so two of my brothers are still farming there today.
Gil:
What prompted you to go to the University of Illinois and pursue agronomy and later on, plant breeding?
Sam:
So my parents were pretty adamant for us to kids to go to college and get a degree. And I enjoyed the plant sided bit. So agronomy was a nice natural fit to learn more about how to do the agronomics, to produce a crop. And my dad was a seed dealer for a long time. And so, you're always associated with the seed part and the different hybrids and varieties. And so, it was cool to figure out what those were like. And so, I went to school and actually, my intention was to come home and farm, but at the time, economics weren't the best to come back on the farm. The farm probably wasn't big enough for... My dad was still farming. One of my little brothers was farming, and would've taken quite a bit of expansion, and not sure the family was up to that.
Sam:
So they started doing some internships, and one of them was with a seed company and had the opportunity to learn about what a plant breeder does and the variation that's in plants and how they manipulate it, and really said, "Wow, this is cool. This is cool science and could relate to it on the family farm, because it was so impactful for us with the specific hybrids and varieties we grew and how they performed." So I opted to go to graduate school, plant breeders there, they talked me into it. And I had the simple goal of, I'd love to help create some corn hybrids that we could plant on our family farm. I thought that'd be pretty cool to help develop a hybrid and then actually have your dad and your brothers actually grow it. It'd be a neat connection. So that's what got me into graduate school and plant breeding and genetics, and went from there.
Gil:
Compared to when you started, versus where it is now, how has plant breeding changed? What was the technology back then, versus what it is now?
Sam:
Yeah, big shift. And that's a cool thing about the plant breeding industry. We've been doing modern plant breeding, let's call it, little over a hundred years and a lot of technical changes that have occurred. And so, as I started going to graduate school, we were just starting to figure out how you could use DNA analysis in a plant breeding program. And it was still very experimental. You didn't know how to really, create all the DNA results. You didn't know what it meant. You didn't know how to use it in your plant breed program. So as I did my PhD, it was focused on, how do we use molecular marker DNA technology and plant breed program. And so, as I came out of graduate school, really the plant breeding industry at the time, was very much, what I call phenotypic based selection. You planted stuff in the field, skilled plant breeders went out there and evaluated it for diseases and various characteristics took a lot of visual notes.
Sam:
We ran combines through, to measure yield and all these characteristics. And you had all this information and data and crunch time in the Fall, and you crunched through it 24/7, make what you think are the best selections and you go do it again. And today, you look at how we use DNA information, where DNA analysis is done on every plant that gets produced. From that, we predict what all these different traits should be and planters make selections based on the DNA profile, before it even gets to the field now. We still take everything to the field to confirm and really test it. But you do a lot more in a laboratory, than you do out in the field. And now, instead of plant breeders and people walking through the field collecting data, we have drones flying over the fields, collecting all the data and it's higher quality and a lot easier to get, and a lot more characteristics.
Sam:
And then the last one that's really, quite different for me is, it was a lot of hand labor, process seed, get all the seed ready and we would ride on the back of the planters, dumping seeds if you've ever done that or seen that. Today, it's all automated. You have automated systems that process it, package it, planters are all automated and it's a lot more like a farmer is driving across a field nowadays, but you're doing very high precision experiments as that machine is going across the field. So lot of change in how we do selection, how we get our data and actually, how we even do the process in the last five years.
Gil:
I did that article for our mid-November issue about crop breeding and I compared it to the... I don't know, you had to be real hardcore baseball fan to know who Gil Hodges was, but I liked him because he had my first name, but I talked about a slump he was in, that Bob Nielsen talked about at Purdue, that when you look at it, it was just amazing from the Civil War until the 1930s, there was no change in corn yields. It was 26 bushel, over those complete 70 years. And there have been some changes since then, but no real recent step change. Might farmers be seeing more higher yields, because of all this breeding technology that you've seen?
Sam:
Yeah. If you look at the long term trends, I think even with this year yield levels at what, 177, it's what the USDA is saying now, we still see that nice genetic gain, year over year increase a little bit. But let's call it two bushels or so, a year we're getting in corn, in the US, now. And the early years, it was a little faster, because the transformation from open pollinated to hybrid crops was so dramatic. It made it a little bit higher increase, smaller base that you're working off of base yield. But yeah, we continue to see that.
Sam:
And I think what that is a function of, and you see this in systems that are under selection, it doesn't matter if it's plants or animals or insects, whatever it is. The longer you do selection, the harder and harder it gets to keep getting the response to that selection. And the technology that companies have brought in the plant breeding that we talked about, have enabled plant breeders to continue to make that genetic gain in the system. That's probably getting tougher and tougher to do that on. We know the yield potential of this crop is still way off the charts, our average yield has a long way to go, to get there. So yeah, you look at this technology, it really is fundamentally helping us make that improvement, year over year.
Gil:
Why the switch to Corteva?
Sam:
A couple of reasons. For me, the company is very focused on farmers. It's a pure play ag company. So 27,000 employees get up every day and all we think about are farmers and how can we help farmers around the world. And I like that culture, I think it brings that commonality across all of our people, that common purpose and vision, and makes us all aligned on what we're trying to do. It was an opportunity for me, to obviously, be the CTO, to run a credible RMD organization and have all the pieces, from plant breeding and genomics and biotech, to crop protection and opportunities down the road with digital tools, bring it all together and help direct that, personally was very appealing to me. And so, the heritage pieces that we got to build off of, pure play and just a wonderful chance to join a great RMD group.
Gil:
As you look out towards the future, what kind of technologies excite you?
Sam:
I put it in a couple buckets. When I think about the plant side, it really is about gene editing. If you look at the impact biotech has had on the industry, it's pretty amazing when you look at what we've done. And I would say, every indication is gene editing platforms are probably going to be bigger. The opportunity to really, fundamentally transform plant breeding again, and extract more the genetic variation that's there, the opportunity to bring more traits and more solutions to farmers. And it's really needed, if you look at the pace of climate change and what we need to bring solutions for the grower, we need to get faster, bringing some of this technology to farmers. And so, that one to me on the seed side is going to be the future of a lot of things on the crop protection side. What's really cool is, the type and the nature of the active ingredients and formulations that we've been building.
Sam:
They're winning a lot of green chemistry awards, their profiles for safety and environmental fates are much better than what we've had on some of our older chemistry, use rates our way down on a lot of things. So I love how we're rebuilding, what is ag crop protection and the very nature of that chemistry, and bolting onto to that, things like biologics as an example, really compliment that system. So those two are pretty cool. And then, I think down the road here, there's still a lot of work to be done, but bringing all this together with a digital system and that information for a farmer is going to be the nice way to integrate the complete package.
Gil:
Digital ag, it seems like, along with other things that it's still very hot, a lot of technology has been developed, but is there a missing link? Are we missing anything in that whole digital ag picture?
Sam:
A couple things. My experiences on the farm have taught me about it. One, the tools and the systems information. It really has to be simple and easy and things really have to be connected. And so, I think about it, my own family farm and when it's time to plant crops, it's time to plant. And you jump into a tractor and you start planting and all of a sudden, the system goes down and maybe it's not collecting data or sending data. You're just not going to wait on it. You're not going to try to sit there and mess around with it or have a service call or wait a couple days for this and that, you're just going to keep planting. So these systems have to be really simple, really robust at the actual user level, because the criticality of the time factor in the environment they operate in.
Sam:
And then, the piece I think that's still been missing in digital in a lot of space is, what do I do about it? What is the actual, actionable insight at a farmer level? Great. Show me another map and show me some more data and show me insights, but what do I do? And so, I think the industry moving to, how to help a farmer going through that experimentation process and understanding where to go or how to look at different products on their farm. I think we have a role in the industry, to help facilitate that conversation and where do you go with this stuff? And so, those are the two on the bookends, I'd say, as an industry, we do more at. And if we continue to do more at that, I think the system continues to bring value to farmers.
Gil:
I was reading a column wrote a couple years ago for your previous employer, about limitations of digital ag. And there was one story about, I think you looked at split planting rates and... I think you were comparing two hybrids anyway.
Sam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.
Gil:
And one of them, it seemed like the analysis by digital ag just wasn't what was expected. Are there any limitations to digital ag?
Sam:
Yeah. I know the article you're talking about and basically, the premise was, it comes back to, what's the question you're trying to ask? And then, how do you test that question on the farming operation? So in the research world, we understand our hypothesis and we have very clear experimental designs and how we go, execute those experiments. And you try to control for all your variability and confounding factors to be able to answer the hypothesis that you're testing. And so, the farmers wanting to understand, should I plant hybrid A or hybrid B? How they do that testing on their farm is really important, to make sure they get the right answer about what's real, versus what's an artifact. And so, I'll share an example of what my dad always used to do. My dad knew the fields really well.
Sam:
He knew which ones yielded well and which ones didn't and which parts of what field typically was lower yielding and other parts of the field. And as seed companies would come and new sales people would show up and say, "Hey, we'd like you to try this hybrid. It's a great new hybrid." And maybe my dad was interested, maybe not, but he always put them in the worst parts of the field. And so, you never had a chance to be successful, because he had basically stacked the game against that salesperson, because maybe he just wanted free seed or maybe didn't care. And so I think that's really, an important part that we look at, how to evaluate this stuff on the farm. And a lot of things that I was trying to point out in that article was, there's a lot of companies out there doing stuff, and they'll tell you they've done data science on your data.
Sam:
And sometimes that leaves the impression that, well, this must be valid. And the reality is, if the data going in is not very good, the analysis coming out is not very good either. And so, if there's lots of confounding factors with planting dates and soil types and water levels or fertility levels, and you're just trying to compare hybrid A versus B, you may or may not get the right answer. And that was, I think, just for farmers to be aware, because you don't want to make the wrong decision. You think hybrid A is better than B, but in reality, it's the other way around. That's a very detrimental decision to your farming operation. There's a lot to make sure that the data is valid, how the testing's done and questioning how this stuff was done versus, "Hey, it's in this app on my phone, it must be right." Well, maybe not.
Gil:
This summer at the Corteva Media Day in July, when you mentioned carbon markets. And it made me smile, because I did a piece on climate change seven years ago, that was on the cover of Successful Farming. And surprisingly, about half the response was favorable, but about half the response was hoax, there's nothing to it. And now, I find that farmers, when they find out they can get paid for doing some things that sequester greenhouse gases, they may not believe in climate change, but they believe in money.
Sam:
Yeah, exactly.
Gil:
When it comes to Corteva and carbon markets, I know you folks have a program. Where do you see the future of this going?
Sam:
It's a very interesting one for agriculture, because one, there's no doubt soils can sequester a lot of carbon. I think there are still scientific questions as an industry, we have to answer about how much is being sequestered, what methodology and process is best for that. What happens if you have to disturb that soil, some point in the next 10 years and how much disturbance. And so, I think there's a number of things that need to really happen around the persistence of the carbon and understanding that. As I tell people, you want to make sure these are legitimate and valid. Nobody wants to be misleading and nobody wants to be mislead. But the second one I think has to happen here is, we have a lot of different systems out there, a lot of companies, a lot of open markets. And I think as farmers, it can be confusing, sometimes I have to really, stop and try to sort out and understand what nuances of the different programs are.
Sam:
And so, making sure we're educating, being transparent, people really understand the programs' very important. And we're trying to do a lot of just, making sure people understand what our operation is. And then, ultimately I think the value per acre has to go up today. The payment level and value of the carbon credit really does not cover all costs. And so, today I look at it as, it's farmers who want to do this already for other reasons, or they see value in this for other reasons.
Sam:
And right now, the carbon is an add-on, but I think down the road, you could imagine a world where, the value of the credits get hired and higher, at some point it starts to be as valuable as the commodity crop itself. And then it becomes a very interesting environment in that situation of, what are you doing, how you're doing it, and what's going on. And I think that would drive innovation in farming systems. So I'm excited about it. I tell people to understand it as you're getting into it. And I think we've got to see a little bit more on the science and the value, continue to evolve in the system.
Gil:
This is just a gut feeling on my part, but when you talk with a farmer and if you ask them, "Do you like growing corn soybeans?" Nine times out 10, they'll say growing corn.
Sam:
Absolutely.
Gil:
I don't know if there's just more of it to handle or whatever, but it seems to me, the soybeans have always gotten a bad rap when compared to corn. They just don't yield as well. They're a weed that I grow between corn. What things are your folks doing to get farmers excited about soybeans?
Sam:
I hear that question a lot, when are we going to make soybeans yield as much? And when you go back and you actually look at the data and you start talking to people about it, it's like, "Well, actually the yield increases in soy have actually been pretty good in the United States and on a percentage basis, they're actually not too far off of corn." So there's more improvements there in the base germ plasm and genetics then maybe, sometimes we always recognize, because the base level is so low too. We're obviously doing a lot in giving farmers more choice in how they want to manage their weeds on the field with our Enlist system, and creating that option out there for them.
Sam:
We're doing a lot, obviously, on how to improve the base genetics through our plant breeding programs. And then, we're taking a look at, what are other traits, if you think about output traits, what's the value of oil with renew oils coming on stronger, modifications in the protein levels as people want some different types of proteins, or different uses of it. Or even in the North, where our protein levels run a little short on our soybeans in general. So making sure we make that solid. And then, a lot of stuff in soybeans is around disease tolerance. There's a lot of things that like to damage soybeans. So we're doing a lot of work on really, making sure the disease resistance is where it needs to be.
Gil:
This article is going to come out in February. Is there anything you have planned that you're doing in February, any conferences or events or anything like that, that you're planning on doing?
Sam:
We may have some opportunity to start talking a little bit more about our pipeline and our research in that time frame. And then, we still are wanting to do an innovation showcase, maybe in that August, early September range, here at the Johnson facility. We had it set up last year and then with COVID and a few changes, we opted to delay it. And so, we're headed down a path to talk more about our pipeline and some projects and opportunities. And so, there might be a couple things we want to get back to you on that we got some specific new innovations coming out, that you might be interested hearing more about.
Gil:
Is there anything I haven't asked you?
Sam:
The one I maybe would just like to just make sure we reiterate a little bit is, sometimes ag crop protection is getting a negative reputation or stories about it. And I would just ask people to really, stop and look at the very nature of the new crop protection that's coming to the market. It's quite different than what we used to think about. When you look at some of the use rates and safety profiles, it's much, much better. And so, let's make sure we look at all evolution and changes and not get too hung up on maybe, some of the stories that are coming out.

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