Think back to the days when a group of dedicated plant breeders devoted their lives to developing the best possible soybean varieties for the South.

No one did it better than Edgar E. Hartwig, who went to work as a USDA-Agricultural Research Service soybean breeder at Stoneville, Miss., in 1949. For the next 47 years, he regularly turned out Southern varieties, many named after Confederate generals: Lee, Hood, Hill, Bragg, Pickett, Bedford, Semmes and Nathan, among them, along with others like Centennial, Alamo, Vernal and Lyon.

Today, though breeding work continues at research stations across the South, much of the development comes from the big seed companies putting their biotech traits into varieties. It’s natural for them to focus on the big Midwest market for their soybeans. Now, though, the companies say they are putting more research effort on Southern soybeans.

Pioneer Hi-Bred is opening a new breeding station at Kinston, N.C., targeting the Southern market. “We’re focusing our efforts there on developing varieties for the Southern production system. We’re looking for a better disease resistance package, varieties that can handle things like stem canker and root knot nematode. In some cases, we’re looking at transgenic solutions. All this is targeted toward Southern growers,” says John Soper, Pioneer’s senior research director for soybean product development.

“Southern growers have seen a dramatic increase in soybean yields over the last dozen years or so. They’re planting and harvesting earlier. They’ve moved to Group IV and V soybeans and are getting decent yields comparable to the Midwest,” Soper says.

Monsanto also is at work on problems common in many Southern soybean fields as well as those in the Midwest. “We already have genes for soybean cyst nematode, the biggest pest on soybeans, and also resistance to root knot nematode,” says Roy Fuchs, Monsanto’s global tech soybean lead.

“We will have a series of genes introduced into the germplasm for seven or eight fungal diseases including sudden death syndrome and Asian soybean rust,” Fuchs says.

Monsanto anticipates having a full maturity range of its new Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, which the company says produces more beans per pod, by the 2011 season. In 2010, there will be no Group V Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans available, says Lisa Flynn, Monsanto’s trait marketing manager for the new varieties.

Syngenta, too, is working harder on Southern soybean problems. “The Southern soybean area is a little more geographic with its challenges. Such growing environments can be unique for breeding with something like how to weather hurricanes better. What are the different decision points for Southerners?” says Gene Kassmeyer, head of Syngenta’s soybean product line.

“We are very focused on the Southern market, and we are investing in it. Southern pest and disease challenges can be difficult, things like root knot nematode and leaf spot. We’re looking at all those things,” Kassmeyer says.

Bayer CropScience is introducing LibertyLink soybeans with tolerance to Ignite, an over-the-top herbicide, providing an option to farmers troubled by glyphosate-resistant weeds like Palmer amaranth, now widespread across the South. Arlene Cotie, Bayer CropScience communications product manager, says the trait should be available in later maturing soybean varieties by the 2012 season.

“We are working on projects with additional insect tolerance and complementary herbicide tolerance that could be stacked with Ignite. We’re also looking at new traits for diseases and drought tolerance. We’ve seen extremely good results out of Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky, both with yield and diseases,” Cotie says.

Bayer is a trait provider, not a seed company. More than 100 seed companies are licensed to sell the LibertyLink trait.

Will the push for trait development be a moneymaker for Southern producers? That’s still anyone’s guess. Yield, though, almost certainly will increase in coming years. Monsanto predicts a doubling of 2000 yield by 2030. Pioneer hopes to increase yield 40 percent in the next 10 years. Is it possible?

“It will surprise a lot of people to hear me say this, but yes, it is,” says Jim Dunphy, North Carolina Extension soybean specialist.

“Part of what’s coming with this new technology is the capacity to speed up the whole system. In the past, if a breeder was looking for a particular gene, he or she had to go the field and wait for it to show up. Now they’ve got the capacity to go to the lab and identify specific genes. They can take one seed, find the gene they want, and go to field with it next year. They can take a single gene and see if that’s what they want. They have seed chippers so they can go through tens of thousands of seeds,” Dunphy says.

In addition, the companies now use winter production with special lighting in Puerto Rico to help turn out at least three variety generations in a single year. All this cuts several years from the process of bringing new varieties to the market.

“Some of these yield claims don’t look so far-fetched any more. It’s a compound interest kind of thing. It works faster than simple interest,” Dunphy says.

Yields have already been trending upward. Now that increase should speed up.

“There’s no question that the five-year average yield line has been going up,” Dunphy says. “Yield in real good years has gotten higher and in real bad years yield is not as bad as it was. The soybeans we have now tolerate stress better,” Dunphy says.

Edgar Hartwig would no doubt be intrigued by the new high-tech methods of bringing varieties on the market. What might he have done with a seed chipper in the lab?