It's not often that the little guy catches a break in the ever-changing world of high-tech cottonseed. But American Cotton Breeders, Inc., did.

The two-man operation began in 1987, when Sid Stephens, company president, and David Bush, plant breeder, pooled their resources and created the company.

The roots of the relationship go back to when Bush had an even smaller company called Crop Genetics Service and Stephens was looking for new cotton varieties to develop and did some breeding of his own.

“Crop Genetics was a fancy name for me and a Dodge pickup,” said Bush, who did contract research and spent some time as a breeder for a cotton delinting company.

The association helped lay the groundwork for American Cotton Breeders and a new breeding program intended to produce high-yielding, high-quality cotton varieties for Texas and the Mid-South.

However, the road turned rocky for the operation when Monsanto released its Bollgard technology and Roundup Ready technology in 1996 and 1997, respectively. The technologies literally revolutionized cotton production in the United States and, at first, threatened the existence of small breeding operations that didn't have access to the technology.

“When transgenics came along, many of the small breeding companies either quit or sold out to bigger companies,” Bush said. “I got out of cotton for three years, but I maintained my interest in it and kept up with what Sid was doing.”

Stephens kept American Cotton Breeders going. “I tell David that I didn't have sense enough to quit,” Stephens said. “But it was something that I was into. It wasn't taking anything away from my living. It was something that I could continue to do.”

Then, as suddenly as the door closed, it opened once again when Monsanto decided to license its herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant technologies to seed companies that met certain criteria.

American Cotton Breeders passed muster and recently signed a research agreement with Monsanto to begin placing Bollgard and Roundup Ready traits in its Americot cotton varieties.

“Then the breeding program was really worth something,” Bush said. “We had germplasm that was starting to look pretty good in terms of yield and fiber quality. Now we're doing this full-time.”

Bush and Stevens believe the agreement with Monsanto bodes well for cotton producers.

“We're finding that farmers are happy that we're out there,” Bush said. “Small regional companies used to provide quite a bit of seed for them. They don't anymore.”

“We want to be part of it,” Stephens added. “We don't expect to be too big a blip on the radar screen. But we expect to be there.”

According to Dave Rhylander, director of Southern markets for Monsanto, a research agreement gives a seed company the right to develop varieties with Monsanto technology. When the seed company is ready to commercialize the resulting breeding lines, it signs a commercial agreement with the technology company.

Monsanto has research agreements with three cottonseed companies, including American Cotton Breeders, and commercial agreements with seven companies: Aventis, Delta and Pine Land, Stoneville, California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, Associated Farmers Delinters, All-Tex and South Texas Planting Seed Co.

The availability of Bollgard and Roundup Ready technologies to seed companies “provides cotton producers across the Cotton Belt with more variety choices,” Rhylander said.

American Cotton Breeders expects to have Roundup Ready versions of its current conventional lines ready to sell by 2003. “But we'd like for farmers to start growing some of the conventional varieties to see how they perform,” Stephens said.

Americot varieties will be available with Bollgard and stacked traits, too. “But that's going to be down the road,” Bush said. “We're trying to do things one step at a time. One thing I've learned after 28 years is you can't rush things. If you do, you're going to make a mistake.”

American Cotton Breeders has worked out an agreement with West Gaines Seed Delinting to produce and process Americot seed, noted Stephens. “It really is a quality group.”

The company has access to a seed technology laboratory there, according to Bush. “That's where our main nursery is located. We also have a large nursery in Leachville, Ark. Our cooperator there is North Delta Cotton, LLC, a consortium that markets cotton.”

Despite the big-time technology that will soon be in Americot cotton varieties, Bush and Stevens still consider themselves a small company. There are advantages to staying that way.

“We can concentrate on developing varieties for a much smaller region than a larger company can,” Bush said.

“In our Texas program in the southwest part of the Plains, water is a concern and will continue to be,” Bush said. “In that program we are putting a lot of emphasis on more water-efficient cotton varieties.

“In northeast Arkansas, we have quite a bit of material from Texas A&M University that is root knot nematode-resistant. Also, since we're working with North Delta Cotton, we want to produce a better-quality lint that may produce a few more cents somewhere down the road.”

American Cotton Breeders has three conventional varieties to sell for 2002. Descriptions are from company literature.

Americot 4207 is an early-maturing variety with excellent yield potential. Has performed well in several locations in the Southwest and Mid-South and led new strains tests in Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee. It has a compact plant conformation and can be grown on highly productive soils without excessive plant growth. Length, 36-37; strength, 27-30; and micronaire 3.6-4.5.

Americot 8120 is a mid-season cotton variety with excellent yield potential and shows resistance to verticillium wilt. Performs well in dryland and limited water production systems. An open boll type that has performed well in stripper markets in Texas. Length, 36-38; strength, 28-30; and mike, 3.6-4.5.

Americot 1621 is a mid- to full-season variety with a robust plant conformation. Large root system allows the variety to yield well on dryland and limited-water production systems. Has performed well on heavy soils in Arkansas and Missouri. Lint yield has been exceptional from the Southwest to the Mid-South. Length, 35-37; strength, 28-30; and mike 3.8-4.8.