Today’s Breeders On Tomorrow’s Plants

By |
Allan Armitage

Allan Armitage

I am but a young fellow, yet I have seen my share of changes. I have watched companies come and go, organizations peak and fail, and the image of gardening go from labor of love to decorating the deck. I have seen the corner garden center flourish only to face challenges from box stores, and box stores get so big as to direct the future of this industry. I have seen heavyweights of our industry retire and pass their torches to a younger set, with everyone collectively holding their breath to see if the younger set is up to the challenge.

One of the future challenges, to be sure, is the continuing need for new and improved crops for the consumer. Make no mistake about it, regardless of whether or not one snickers at the introduction of one more red geranium, new crops — and new breeders — are the lifeblood of this industry.

So a valid question arises: Who is this next generation of breeders today and are they up to the challenge? Laura Drotleff, the editor of this exceptional magazine, looked for young breeders in this country and asked their thoughts about the present and future of their chosen careers. She shared them with me and now I do the same with you. The questions were far-ranging and the responses varied, but I was impressed with many of the comments.

The Future Of Breeding
Joseph Tychonievich of Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan has seen some innovative breeding and is hopeful — but also sees “a lot of very dull, copy-cat breeding that makes me less hopeful. I think we’ll see more of both in the future — truly creative breeders pushing breakthroughs while other companies work to rapidly copy the successful introductions of their competitors.”

Ockert Greyvenstein, a Ph.D. candidate in plant breeding at Texas A&M University, says he thinks breeding for abiotic and biotic factors must be addressed. “The green industry is going to have to keep supplying ‘green’ products, requiring minimal input with acceptable appearances,” he says. “Technology developed and implemented by the major food crops is likely to be implemented in floriculture crops to help with breeding progress.”

Jason Jandrew of Ball FloraPlant says he believes that “over the next 30 years, people will continue to have less and less outdoor space and free time for gardening. Pot crops and cut flowers will become even more interesting as people try to remain connected to disappearing green space outside their homes by bringing more of nature inside, especially in many developing nations with high population densities.”

Kelly Norris of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden has a few sharp words about today’s breeders: “There are those coming of out graduate school who end up toiling away with petunias and commodity crops. I feel for them,” he says. “Then there are those of us in ‘private practice’ (a.k.a. unpaid hobby breeding) or working for public institutions that don’t have to live by the rules. We take risks, run into road blocks (like lack of funding or time) and fail more than we succeed. But we are passionate and believe in what we encounter in the public — an earnest desire to be fascinated by plants and to want something different than what they so often encounter. It’s this class of breeders that stand the chance of advancing the cause of plant breeding because they are champions of new genera.”

Breeding Predictions And Priorities
There were a number of questions posed to the breeders (the complete transcripts can be viewed online at GreenhouseGrower.com/tag/dec2013), but I will share just one more — a kind of “War of the Worlds” look at the future.

In a prediction for the future of floriculture in the next 30 years, Grevenstein says he would not be surprised “if GMO (genetically modified organism) technology is accepted and implemented in floriculture crops in the next 30 years.

Ping Ren of PanAmerican Seed has many opinions, one of which is that “houseplants that have been identified and proved to be truly good for human health or even illness treatment” may be a breeding priority.

Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennials is a little skeptical of the future because he sees “a lot fewer companies (staying in business) because they can’t make a profit due to high costs, especially taxes.” He also sees “less demand for the wide variety that has been offered in the past.”

And again from Norris, the most optimistic of the group: “Gardening will be something a majority of the population does, because it’s such a relevant part of cultural existence.”

Many other excellent comments were stated, some based on hope and desire (the truly younger breeders) others on experience (established breeders). It is particularly interesting to see what crops they believe to be relevant in the future and the directions they see their careers evolving.

We Need “New Blood” In Breeding
I hate to finish on a troubling note, but when Laura approached me about this article, she asked me to suggest some names of young breeders. I ran out of names after a minute and a half. Ultimately, we received responses from both academia and the industry, but only two or three could be considered truly new breeders, with less than five years of experience.

Are there more young breeders out there who we may have missed? If so, let us know — we want to hear from you. If not, we are in big trouble. Because if one thing is certain, the industry will not look like this 30 years down the road.

Allan Armitage was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia for 30 years. He recently retired and remains an active consultant, author and lecturer.
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