“That afforded me the opportunity to move back to Mississippi, and I jumped at it,” McPherson says. “I thought, ‘I’d rather work in the field than in the greenhouse any day.’”
It didn’t take long for McPherson to make a major impact on U.S. cotton. PhytoGen was still a young seed company when he began there in the late 90s, and McPherson says the focus at that time was to build a germplasm base that was high-yielding. To focus immediately on producing a single workhorse variety at that stage, he says, would be like attempting to run before you can crawl.
“Each year, we evaluate thousands of progeny rows,” McPherson says. “Each one of those is potentially a new variety. So you evaluate many, and then you select down to the very best to make more crosses with those, and then eventually you develop a new commercial variety from there,” he says.
McPherson estimates that from an initial “conventional cross,” it typically takes from 13 to 14 years before a variety is commercialized. Cotton breeding is not for the impatient.
Still, it took McPherson less than a decade to produce a parent of what would become PhytoGen workhorse PHY 499 WRF. In the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, PHY 499 WRF was the single most-planted variety in the United States, accounting for roughly 10 percent of every Upland cotton acre in that timeframe. PhytoGen agronomists rave about the variety.
“It is broadly adapted across the country to fit in many different irrigation regimes and soil types,” says Scott Fuchs, PhytoGen cotton development specialist for all of West Texas, and formerly Oklahoma and New Mexico. “It has very good stress tolerance and has a very extensive root system that allows it to withstand many of those stresses and still produce. Its storm tolerance is where it needs to be, and it just has outstanding yield potential.”
For all its accolades, PHY 499 WRF wasn’t the first wildly successful variety McPherson had a hand in producing. He is also credited for being instrumental in the development of PHY 375 WRF, itself a former leader in national acreage share. Clearly, McPherson is doing something right.
“My philosophy for deciding which crosses to make is to match the very best parents in a complimentary manner such that the weakness of one is offset by the strength of another,” McPherson says. “I try to maximize the genetic diversity among parents and actively cross with germplasm releases from public breeders including USDA and the University of Arkansas. My breeding objectives include yield, enhanced fiber quality, reduced leaf pubescence and host plant resistance (HPR) to pests such as root-knot and reniform nematode, bacterial blight, Verticillium wilt and Fusarium wilt.”
McPherson says cotton breeders are keenly aware of how cotton farmers depend on new varieties to enhance yield potential through the years. While input costs consistently rise, the price of cotton remains relatively unchanged. Yield, it seems, is the only variable that keeps cotton farming profitable. However, he has also worked diligently to improve fiber.
“Yield gains are not made in a gradual climb,” McPherson says. “It’s a staircase. You make improvements, and then you go along for a few years and nothing beats the best line. Then you have a new variety that beats that, and nothing beats it for a few years.”
With that staircase model in mind, McPherson insists PhytoGen has new varieties in the pipeline that will outshine existing yield leaders.
“We have conventional lines that are beating the parents of existing commercial lines hands down,” he says. “Add to that our improvements in fiber quality and resistance to things like bacterial blight and nematodes. I’m really very confident as we move forward. I don’t see a plateau in our germplasm or varieties at all.”