Cotton breeders, if you’ll excuse the pun (or even if you won’t), are a close-knit group who await their every-other-year tour of variety trials, technical innovations, and research reviews with the anticipation of a family reunion.

"This is the only time the cotton breeding community gets together to talk and maintain a sense of camaraderie," says John Gannaway, Texas A&M University cotton breeder at the Lubbock Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Center and host of this year’s tour.

"The cotton breeders’ tour offers a unique opportunity for scientists to share ideas and pick up information, sometimes things they don’t expect."

Roy Cantrell, vice president for agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated, the tour sponsor, says the event has been a highlight for breeders for more than 20 years. "It serves a dual purpose," he says. "This tour offers breeders an opportunity to learn from each other and to develop a sense of cooperation that may be unique to this industry.

"This is the premier event for cotton breeders."

Cantrell says the recent tour that highlighted cotton breeding and research on the Texas High Plains set a record for attendance, with more than 120 pre-registered and more than 130 actual participants.

"We had more than 70 at a pre-tour cotton fiber quality workshop. We saw a lot of interest in new technology for quality trait improvements."

Cantrell says the tour, which alternates between five locations including the Southeast, the Mid-South, the Texas High Plains, South Texas and the Far West, allows breeders to see cotton varieties they may never see in their regions. Within a span of 10 years, breeders will have an opportunity to visit every major cotton-producing region in the United States.

"They also get a chance to see how cotton bred in one region performs in another. Some varieties adapt well; others do not. Breeders can evaluate their own materials under different stress conditions and evaluate them for disease and pest resistance as well as for quality traits," he says.

"Scientists see equipment and techniques for planting and harvesting variety plots that may adapt to other sites. We have to think of new ways of doing things. These tours help us do that.

"The industry has undergone significant change in the past few years," Cantrell says. "Bayer/FiberMax, for instance, offers a big breeding program that didn’t even exist just a few years ago."

Cantrell says the future of cotton breeding is promising. "The pipeline is full of varieties, and we’re optimistic that better materials, with improved quality characteristics and yield potential, will be available soon."

Cantrell says another reason for optimism is the number of graduate students on the 2003 tour. "That bodes well for the health of the industry," he says. "Young minds will move into increasingly important roles and will be responsible for improvements as far out as 20 or 30 years."

The tour gives students an opportunity to meet some of the most important people in cotton genetics, Gannaway says. "And they get exposed to what goes on in the real world beyond the lab and the classroom."

"It’s a great opportunity," says Sarah Jackson, a graduate student from Arkansas. "This is the first time I’ve ever been in the High Plains, and I’m amazed to see how different production is from the Mid-South or the Southeast. The amount of acreage in cotton in this area is overwhelming."

Jackson says the possibilities for cotton breeding "seem endless, especially with molecular technology."

She says the seed has become an important carrier of resistance and quality traits. "I can’t imagine ever not needing crop protection chemicals, but the seed will become increasingly important as we develop new technology."

Jackson plans to concentrate on traditional cotton breeding techniques. "Traditional breeders will continue to provide the final product," she says.

Ted Wallace, cotton breeder from Mississippi State University, estimates that at least a dozen graduate students participated in this year’s tour. "That’s more than we’ve ever had before. This is the first year I’ve brought a graduate student. These young people are the next generation of cotton breeders and this is a good way for them to get a foot in the door. They start making contacts they’ll need in their careers."

Cotton breeders from 11 cotton-producing states and Australia, China, Costa Rica, and Israel participated in the tour.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com