Look for public researchers to turn back to the business of building a better cotton plant, responding to the concerns of growers from coast to coast.

Cotton Incorporated will soon be investing more money in land grant university and USDA breeding programs, aimed at improving cotton yield and quality. Among the initiatives is a new Cotton Incorporated Fellows Program, designed to attract the best and brightest young agricultural scientists.

“It's a significant increase in the effort to address concerns about stagnant yields and declining quality, laying the foundation for germplasm to reverse that trend,” says Roy Cantrell, Cotton Incorporated's new vice president for agricultural research, and a former cotton breeder at New Mexico State University.

The new funding program will begin in 2002 with the primary focus on the germplasm itself rather than biotechnology. “The actual dollar amount is going to be a significant increase of our ag research budget. It comes as a result of an initiative from the Cotton Incorporated board of directors, which has a lot of interest in putting together enhanced research projects with short- and long-term goals,” Cantrell says.

“We have to have a balance between them. Breeding doesn't go as fast as growers want. A lot of these projects will be funded for three to five years.”

Cantrell thinks better varieties will soon be available, though.

“There's a lot of optimism among breeders, both public and private, about what's in the pipeline. They're going to reverse this trend in yield. There will be newer varieties that will certainly be noticeable,” he says.

Attacking specific pest problems like reniform nematode resistance may require a longer-term approach. For that, breeders would need to find ways to get fairly exotic genetic material into breeder-friendly germplasm. Then it would be extensively field-tested to be sure it holds up under real-life conditions.

“In putting together this kind of program, breeders are dealing with a lot of biotic factors, like reniform. Here, we're not just talking about maximizing yields but improving stability from year to year, farm to farm,” Cantrell says.

At the core of Cotton Incorporated's new funding initiative is its partnership with land grant universities to establish training programs for graduate and post-doctoral students.

“There's a lack of scientists trained in applying new technologies. That could be a serious constraint and indicate a future crisis,” Cantrell says.

As a result, a significant portion of the funding will establish the Cotton Incorporated Fellows Program. “The goal is to attract the best young minds and the future leaders of the plant breeding industry. There'll be funding, tuition and travel costs covered by the program. The demand for cotton breeders has never been greater. Cotton Incorporated is going to be a leader in attracting these people to work on cotton. We want it to be an esteemed program and attract the very top students,” Cantrell says.