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Conley Peterson Profile, 09 06 10


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Conley Peterson Profile, 09 06 10

  1. 1. Peterson Profile by Alia ConleyEDIT THIS!<br />Rec’d 11:58 p.m., 09/06/10<br />To an untrained eye, the 3,000 rows of crops look all the same. <br />But Gary Peterson can look at a sorghum plant and name the seed and plant color, know what diseases it has and if there is bug damage. He can describe the characteristics of the two parent plants, too. <br />“You just learn,” Peterson said. “You learn what things look like. You learn if you make crosses, what type of material is going to come out of that.”<br />For two weeks every year, Peterson walks row-by-row outside in 90-degree, humid July weather in Corpus Christi, Texas and makes notes with his electronic pad. He’s looking for sorghum with a full head of white seed, about five feet tall.<br />He’ll do this in two other places: Puerto Rico and Lubbock, Texas. Peterson spends most of his time in Lubbock, as part of the Texas A & M AgriLife Research and Extension Center. Peterson has no laboratory. Sorghum fields are his workplace.<br />Sorghum breeding is the only job Peterson has had – this is his 28th year in the fields and as a part of INTSORMIL. <br />“It’s really enjoyable because there’s a tremendous amount of diversity,” Peterson said. “You get to be out in the field and get all nice and nasty and identify those things that look good.”<br />Corpus Christi is one of the best areas to grow sorghum because of the climate. Any selection made here can easily translate and perform well across the United States, Central America and Africa.<br />Sorghum has a life cycle of about three to four months, from first seed to maturity. The first 30-40 days is when the plant grows roots and leaves. The next 30-35 days, the sorghum head, that contains the seeds, will start to emerge from the plant, and 10 days after that the plant will produce flowers, and stay mature for a month or so. <br />Peterson has three fields – Puerto Rico, Corpus Christi and Lubbock. Workers plant seeds in Puerto Rico in December, then Peterson travels there to make crosses in late January and returns again in March to harvest the sorghum. In Corpus Christi, planting starts late March and harvest is in July, and planting in Lubbock starts in June and harvest is in September. This planting schedule speeds up the breeding process, allowing Peterson to do three generations in one year. <br /> Workers will cross various top-notch sorghum varieties according to Peterson’s plans. Crossbreeding means combining two plants to create a new one, like humans do with reproduction. After four or five generations of crosses, Peterson selects two to four lines for sorghum farmer use, in either the United States or Africa. <br />He only makes crosses in Lubbock and Puerto Rico, while Corpus Christi is just a testing site where he observes plants in the fields. Peterson creates new sorghum with a process called plastic bag emasculation. <br />A sorghum plant can be both a male and a female in the process. Peterson take the plant used as a female, and wait until the sorghum head starts to flower. He cuts the tip off and but a plastic bag on, followed with a paper bag the size of a small lunch sack. <br />After two or three days, Peterson returns with pollen from the male plant and puts it in the female plant. He puts a new bag on the plant and waits to harvest it.<br />Workers make 150 plastic bag crosses a year, which result in 75 to 100 successful, new sorghum types. <br />“Plant breeding is a numbers game,” Peterson said. “The more people that you have working for you, the more crosses you can make, the more rows you can plant out, the higher probability you have of selecting something that’s worthwhile.”<br />Three other INTSORMIL scientists, Lloyd and William Rooney and Gary Odvody, also work in the TAMU sorghum fields. While Peterson is employed at TAMU, he does not teach any classes, only researches and tests sorghum. <br />However, INTSORMIL has trained 1200 graduate students, 140 of them from Africa or Central America, through its 30 years of existence. Lloyd Mbulwe will be Peterson’s newest graduate student when he comes to the United States next year. <br />Mbulwe works for the INTSORMIL sorghum breeding program in Zambia. He wrote in an email that INTSORMIL is extremely helpful with funding sorghum research in Africa.<br />Mbulwe visited Peterson from July 28 to August 7, and is excited to learn and work with Peterson.<br />“[Peterson] is a good mentor and a great scientist,” Mbulwe wrote. “He is open minded and believes that in a dynamic world researchers needs (sic) to be dynamic and innovative.”<br />It’s fitting that Mbulwe is from Zambia, because Peterson is coordinator of the Southern Africa INTSORMIL program, which includes South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia.<br />All of Peterson’s work in the fields examining 16-foot long rows of sorghum culminates to achieve one objective — to create a sorghum plant that can be resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, like disease, bugs and weather. When he scans the fields, he’s looking for something that will last so that farmers in Africa can have sorghum varieties that have more yield and are a better quality.<br />In the 2009 INTSORMIL Annual Report, Peterson wrote a report that outlined his successes: decreased drought damage, increased tolerance to insects and increased yield. He’s grateful for the money that INTSORMIL provides for him to do his research and make an impact on farmers’ lives.<br />“There is no question; if you look at the whole range of the program, yes it’s been a success,” he said.<br /> <br />