The Art of Being a Successful Breeder

It’s a universal challenge for breeders. Keeping up with market demands in multiple climates and countries requires constant vigilance and feedback. Since it takes years to produce a new variety, predicting these market demands is especially important to the A&C breeding team.

American Vegetable Grower spoke with Kyle Shelton, Assistant Sweet Corn Breeder for Abbott & Cobb, about how he chooses and develops traits that are important to both growers and consumers.

Kyle Shelton

AVG: Abbott & Cobb has a number of sweet programs with different, unique traits. How do you decide which traits are the most important to develop? How do you prioritize between grower-friendly traits and consumer-friendly traits?

KS: This is one of the most difficult questions for any breeder to answer, as it is part of our jobs to be constantly paying attention to not only what the market is demanding now; but also to try to predict what the market will be demanding in the future. A&C sells our products in more than 60 countries around the world, and each market has its own specific demands. For us, customer feedback and genetic diversity are the two most important approaches to tackling these demands.

First and foremost, it’s important for us to recognize that no matter what we think we know about any given market, our customers (and their customers) are the ones who know their specific markets better than we ever will. We always make sure to take time with each individual customer to know exactly what their objectives are and to understand how we can best help them to achieve their goals. Second, genetic diversity within our program is how we feel we can best meet these goals. Having a wide range of constantly evolving germplasm allows us to specifically focus on what our customers want and to create and develop a specific varietal program catered towards any market worldwide. Our goal is to provide each and every grower a program catered specifically towards the needs of their consumer. By providing each grower with their own varietal program, we feel that we can meet the demands of both the growers and the consumers, both now and in the future as every market is constantly evolving.

AVG: What breeding techniques do you use when developing these traits? Conventional or genetically engineered or both? Why?

KS: Here at A&C we use 100-percent natural breeding techniques. We are a GMO-free Company. In fact, this year is A&C’s 100-year anniversary, and we’re proud to be one of the largest privately-owned sweet corn companies in the world. It’s important for us to distinguish ourselves between many of the large multi-national companies that often dominate the seed landscape, and this is one of the many ways we’re able to do so. With customers worldwide we find the demand for GMO-free seed is constantly increasing, and we’re happy to be able to confidently pronounce that we don’t work with GMO’s at all. While we understand the importance of developing new strains of disease and insect resistance, we also feel that, although it may be slower in development, natural resistance is longer-lasting and more environmentally friendly than simple genetic modifications. Developing a higher level of natural resistance is to us, the most effective way of combating the constantly evolving pest and disease challenges that all plant breeders face.

AVG: SuperSeedWare®, or SSW®, is a relatively new technology platform. What are the benefits of SSW® technology? Has it lived up to its promise?

KS: SSW® is a completely new and unique technology. A&C is proud to have the first-ever privately patented gene-type in sweet corn history. There are many advantages to SSW,® and we feel that it is on the verge of becoming the new standard in sweet-corn genetics. SSW® provides many benefits both to growers and end-consumers. Its high-quality seed, germination, vigor, and stress-tolerance provides benefits to our growers. The holding ability, consistency of product, and excellent flavor provide benefits to our end consumers. In all, I would say the genetic platform has not only lived up to its promise, but exceeded it in many ways — especially under stressful growing conditions.

AVG: What new SSW® varieties have been added this year, and how do these new varieties differ from the others?

KS: Amongst many others, a few of our new SSW® varieties are SS 28802, SS 3590, and SS Early Riser. I think these varieties represent the true value and diversity of the SSW® genetic platform. SS Early Riser is an early season, fresh-market variety. SS 3590 a processing-type main-season variety; and SS 28802 is a shipping-market late-season variety. Each of these varieties has the benefits of the SSW® genetics, providing excellent seed quality and vigor, as well as consistent performance and stress tolerance. Most importantly, however, is the fact that this isn’t simply a benefit that any one variety carries. Each of these varieties is for an entirely different market; however, benefits such as strong germination, vigor, and stress-tolerance are things both growers and consumers alike can appreciate — regardless of market demands.

AVG: The StaysRichGreen® (SRG®) technology is sometimes stacked with the SSW® technology. What value does the SRG® technology add to the SSW® varieties?

KS: SRG® is one of our latest developments at A&C and is something we’re working hard to incorporate across all our varieties. SRG® plants are easily recognizable by their distinct dark green plant coloration. We’ve found that SRG® plants can contain up to 40% more chlorophyll than standard sweet corn varieties. This can mean decreased use of fertilizers due to higher photosynthetic rates within a given variety. In combination with SSW®, the higher efficiency of SRG® plants provides for excellent germination and vigor, which is maintained throughout the life cycle of the crop. SSW® also provides  much stronger root development, which when complimented by the stronger plant stalks of SRG,® helps to combat lodging pressure and provides an even higher level of insurance when growing crops under stressful conditions.

AVG: HiGlow® is another sweet corn program offered by Abbott & Cobb, and offers brighter, longer-lasting kernel color. Why is color a priority for Abbott & Cobb breeding?

KS: At A&C, we break down holding ability into two distinct categories. One being visual holding ability — fresh-looking husks and ears from the moment it’s picked in the field to the time the consumer puts it on their table. The other aspect is, of course, taste — ensuring that the quality of the corn maintains throughout the growing, harvesting, and cooking process.

HiGlow® is one of our best tools to maintain visual holding ability. The excellent kernel color looks fresh and maintains its color throughout the entire process of harvesting, and most importantly, cooking. Often corn becomes discolored or dull when cooked, whereas with HiGlow® technology, the kernel color can be even brighter and more true even compared to when it’s harvested in the field.

AVG: What are Abbott & Cobb’s areas of breeding focus in sweet corn in the next few years?

KS: We’re constantly working on developing new and diverse genetic programs to maintain a leg up on our competition. One of our newest developments is a program we’ve coined as Nature’s Best Defense (NBD®). NBD® is a program that provides naturally occurring insect protection and is something that we feel will eventually render many of the GMO traits as obsolete. NBD® provides natural resistance to earworms, European corn borers, and most importantly, corn silk fly. These are three of the main sweet corn pests affecting the industry, and we feel NBD® can be a game-changing innovation. We’ve recently filed for a patent on these new genetics and are very excited about the potential for this new innovation. At A&C we’re constantly working on new innovations, and we feel that this is just one of several more unique and different inventions to come over the next several years.