From meager beginnings as one of 32 graduates from Mississippi’s Tunica County High School Class of 1962, Dr. Grover Shannon was recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Soybean Breeders. This recognized a career dedicated to breeding value-added qualities and traits into over 150 varieties that continues to help farmers across the United States remain profitable in the production of soybeans.
Growing up a farm boy in Lake Cormorant, Miss., Shannon “…drifted along…” at Millsaps College for two semesters while he played football and baseball before farming lured him back home. “I farmed with my father in the summers, and started attending Mississippi State University,” remembers Shannon. “When I learned my dad sold the farm, it broke my heart.”
After eventually earning an undergraduate degree in agronomy, and with a little guidance and advice from legendary Mississippi State University breeder Dr. Johnie Jenkins to attend Purdue University, Shannon was soon learning from professors teaching at Purdue’s highly-respected soybean program.
By the time he left Purdue in 1971, he had a master’s in Crop Physiology, a Ph.D. in Plant Genetics and Breeding, and a minor in Plant Pathology. “I worked at the University of Maryland for two years, but my heart was in soybeans,” says Shannon. “My first stint at the University of Missouri’s Fisher Delta Research Center (FDRC) was from 1974 to 1979, but when the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) was passed in 1970, a host of private breeding companies started forming.
Companies and Varieties
From 1979 to 1988 Shannon established and oversaw the Southern soybean breeding program for Asgrow Seed Company on 50 acres of land in Marion, Ark. He left Asgrow to become the senior soybean breeder at Delta and Pine Land, Co. from 1989 to 1999. “I collaborated with breeders at the University of Illinois to develop ‘Fayette’, a Group 3 and 4 variety with resistance to soybean cyst nematode disease,” adds Shannon. “It was named after a county in southern central Illinois where it was first adapted.”
While at D&PL, Shannon was mentored by Dr. “Edgar” Hartwig, considered by many as “Mr. Soybean”. Hartwig is credited with developing 90 percent of the soybean varieties grown in the South — often naming his varieties after Confederate generals. “Dr. Hartwig was one amazingly successful soybean breeder,” says Shannon. “Forrest was a huge Group 5 Southern variety that saved farmers a great deal of money with its resistance to soybean cyst nematodes.”
One year at D&PL, Shannon started working on Group 4 soybean varieties, and was ridiculed because nobody believed they would be profitable in the Delta. “I thought if growers could get them planted early, they would grow well and avoid potential periods of drought that seemed to plague many growers during the season,” explains Shannon. “Today, Group 4 soybeans have virtually replaced Group 5s.”
Along with other D&PL breeders, Shannon and his team advanced Group 5 lines once thought to be non-adaptive to the region and susceptible to lodging or diseases like charcoal rot. “When we started crossing germplasm that did perform well in the South, it got to the point where farmers were harvesting in early August and September,” remembers Shannon. “Elevators also started paying premiums if growers could get their beans to them earlier in the season.”
The concept of soybean planting dates began changing, with growers planting in April instead of May to take advantage of the early spring and summer rains.
Before leaving D&PL, Shannon’s work led to the introduction of the first Roundup Ready-tolerant varieties.
Back to the FDRC
His phone rang one afternoon with an opportunity he could not pass up. The Missouri Soybean Association had established an endowed soybean professorship at the Fisher Delta Research Center. Shannon saw this as a great opportunity to bring varieties to the market that benefit both farmers and the soybean industry in general.
His work eventually led to the development of a variety with a different source of resistant to cyst nematodes as well as resistance to root knot nematodes.
The FDRC received a grant in the 1990s that funded research directed toward increasing the oleic content levels in soybeans. “Soybean oil was a good oil, but we thought it could be improved,” says Shannon. “The U.S. was losing market share to Brazil and Argentina and farmers were proactive to fund our work to improve the soybean oil and soybean meal — which was huge in feeding markets for cattle, chicken, and swine.”
Regular soybeans normally have a 23 percent oleic content. Germplasm lines were eventually found and crossed that raised those levels to 30 percent. When they made crosses with a line from Japan, oleic levels went off the chart. “We had done it,” remembers Shannon.
When Shannon asked Dr. Kristin Bilyeu, a molecular biologist with the USDA/ARS, to investigate the genetic reason for the success, she eventually discovered the two specific genes which caused the increase. “Dr. Bilyeu had a mutant gene on chromosome 10 and the gene I found was on chromosome 20. We crossed the 10 gene with the 20 gene, got them to be ‘homozygous recessive’ and the resulting germplasm exhibited the elevated levels of oleic,” adds Shannon.
The success with the nematode-resistant varieties and the high-oleic varieties will forever be credited, in no small part, to Shannon. “I’ve had so many brilliant people working with me through the years. It is very satisfying to know that our work has helped soybean producers,” says a very humble Shannon.
As the discipline of varietal breeding continues to expand with new technologies like genetic markers and CRISPER, farmers will give Shannon his due credit as one of the most successful and influential classical soybean breeders to ever step into a greenhouse.