From Cotton Grower Magazine – November 2015
As one of a new generation of researchers working in cotton breeding, Americot’s Tom Brooks considers himself fortunate.
The Bells, TN, native began his career at a time when cotton breeding research was at a crossroads – stuck between a classical “boots-in-the-field” approach and the modern techniques brought about by scientific advancements in university laboratories. Brooks feels he got a strong education in both methods. And he feels both are necessary to this day.
Whatever the technique, Brooks could hardly have imagined he’d have a successful career in advanced plant breeding when he was growing up on a cotton and soybean farm in west Tennessee.
“That’s what I always wanted to do, farming,” Brooks says. “While at college at Mississippi State I started working for a cotton breeder there named Ted Wallace. I fell into taking care of test plots and learning a little bit about plant breeding from him. That led to a graduate student position and eventually a Master’s Degree in Plant Breeding from Mississippi State.”
During his time in Starkville, Brooks began to see the chance to make a career in plant breeding, even though that might mean venturing far from the family farm in Tennessee. His next stop was College Station, TX, where he attended Texas A&M University in pursuit of his doctoral degree in genetics. He attained his doctorate in 2001 – an academic career that spanned an exciting timeframe in agricultural science.
“The 90s were when molecular technology was really starting to come onboard,” Brooks says. “Being in a University setting, that’s where you get to see a lot of that first. I was fortunate at A&M to have a split project where I had exposure to molecular tools in cotton, but, at the same time, learned classical breeding techniques.”
“I had a mixed-bag experience, between the education of a more classical breeder and a molecular breeder,” Brooks says. “This was good, because now they’re really one in the same. You really have to have a knowledge of both to be successful, especially these days with all the new traits and information we have available.”
Brooks didn’t know just how big a role his “mixed-bag” education would play in his success when he left Texas A&M. Before leaving College Station, he married his sweetheart, Janet. The two would go on to have four children – Rose (now 12), Evelyn (11), Mae (8) and Ethan (5).
The newlyweds found themselves back in Starkville, where Tom worked briefly in corn breeding at Mississippi State University. The experience proved educational, as Brooks used molecular tools to search for things such as disease resistance. This knowledge carried over to his next career move, when West Gaines Seed – a sister company of Americot – called on Brooks to help ramp up a burgeoning cotton breeding program.
“It was a great learning experience for West Texas production, and for exploring seed quality issues in cotton – something I knew little about,” Brooks says. “I was able to come on full-time into the Americot breeding program in 2010 as the company grew.”
Taking the Reigns
For the past five seasons, Brooks has called on all facets of his education to help make Americot a success. The company has realized its ambitions of expanding into all regions of the Cotton Belt, with NexGen brand varieties like NG 1511 B2RF finding a substantial foothold in the Southeast, Mid-South, Southwest and Far West.
“The company’s footprint has been growing year over year, which has been fortunate for me in allowing me to do what I love,” Brooks says. “I came onboard in 2007 at the same time as the NexGen program became part of Americot. It’s been the basis for our West Texas breeding program, and it gave me a lot of new material to work with.”
Today, Brooks says, he’s seeing his second major transition in terms of cotton trait packages.
“When I started at Americot, we were transitioning from Bollgard Roundup Ready over to Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex,” Brooks recalls. “And now we’re in the big transition from Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex over to Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton. It’s a big transition, and there are going to be more complex trait packages in the future, too.”
Americot has been invested in the XtendFlex technology program with Monsanto since 2010, according to Brooks. Company representatives expect the new trait package to be a major opportunity and selling point in the years to come.
The transition into new traits doesn’t happen overnight, however. And Brooks has been a major player in bringing new varieties featuring the new trait package to the market in Americot and NexGen brand varieties. Brooks and his co-workers are most excited about a new suite of varieties – NG 3517 B2XF, NG 4545 B2XF and NG 3500 XF – that will bring added yield and quality to the Americot lineup, along with the game-changing weed control of XtendFlex technology.
Along with exciting new varieties comes the resulting on-farm success that has kept Americot competitive in the American cotton industry, despite being considerably smaller than most of its seed brand competitors. The disparity in size and resources is not lost on Brooks – in fact, it’s something in which he takes great pride.
“I’m proud that we’re competitive in today’s cotton business,” he says. “When we can tell a grower that we want him to try our variety knowing it could be a benefit to him, then I have done my job.”