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Friday, 05 May 2017 10:13

Beloit man breeds plants to help farmers grow top crops

Written by  Todd Mishler
Dairyland Seed cross-breeder Bill Campbell talks about bags of seeds of commercially available soybean varieties used for yield comparisons during a recent tour of the Clinton research station. Dairyland Seed cross-breeder Bill Campbell talks about bags of seeds of commercially available soybean varieties used for yield comparisons during a recent tour of the Clinton research station. Terry Mayer

STATELINE NEWS -- “We have not come close yet to finding the perfect soybean because perfection is not achievable, but every year we try to get as close as possible.”

That has been Bill Campbell’s philosophy since joining Dairyland Seed Co. as a cross-breeder/germinator on Nov. 1, 1972.

He has worked with corn and alfalfa, but Campbell has concentrated his energy and efforts on soybeans since 1984.

 

Branden Furseth has been the site leader at the facility, located just southwest of Clinton, for the past year and knows how valuable the Beloit resident is to the research station’s success.

“Plant breeders play a key role in agriculture, developing new families of crops with improved yield and quality factors,” Furseth said. “During his time with us, Bill has developed countless soybean and corn varieties, which improved production for farmers across the country. I do not know for sure, but he likely is the longest standing active soybean breeder in the country.”

While he deserves the accolades, Campbell said it’s not about him, but rather a team. And it’s about persistence and hard work. Plus, a little luck and help from Mother Nature don’t hurt.

“This is about the science, but developing an eye for which plants can make a good variety would be the art,” said Campbell, 72. “Getting the variations right is the life blood of a breeder, and soybeans allow for many more selections, which is key in making a breeder successful.”

The process involves tracking plant maturity while watching for diseases and monitoring individual tolerance levels, all of which play a role in determining the quality of crop yields.

“The actual job has changed very little, but you continue to gain knowledge and make little tweaks along the way,” said Campbell, acknowledging invaluable technological advances throughout the system. “As they say, experience is a pile of mistakes, and the hope is that you keep learning while becoming more productive and efficient. I’ve seen genetic gains every year I’ve been here, but we’re not satisfied.”

Campbell spends about 90 percent of his time outside from late April, when planting usually gets done, through October. That means he’s inside from November until spring planting.

He does some traveling, such as a recent trip for yield testing at a winter season location that the company leases in Chile. However, a vital task is getting together with clients -- the farmers -- when the company hosts a banquet every February and/or at national conventions.

“You have to get out and talk to them, find out what their problems are and see what their hopes are,” Campbell said. “My focus is the American farmer, because the bottom line is they have to make a living. And they can’t do that without quality varieties from us.

“The thing about this business is you can’t say, ‘What if,’” Campbell added. “You can’t fear the Dumpster, so to speak, meaning you can’t be afraid of throwing something out if it’s not right.”

Still, efficiency remains the name of the game, and thanks to Campbell and his team the company continues to thrive while seeking to reduce cycle times and searching for perfection.

That search began for Campbell when he and his twin brother, Robert, worked in their father’s greenhouse (Campbell’s Floral) in Bismarck, North Dakota, where they went to junior college in 1963 and 1964.

Carl Campbell developed phlebitis -- inflammation of the veins in his legs -- in March 1966, while the brothers were attending North Dakota State University.

“We learned how to do things and how to do them right,” Campbell said of lessons learned from their father, setting up the agriculture curriculum during their two years at junior college.

Campbell received his bachelor’s degree in horticulture science from NDSU. From 1967 to 1972, he attended the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, earning a master’s degree in plant breeding.

Then it came down to deciding between other opportunities versus Dairyland. And because he would have much more control, breeding mostly field corn to start, the latter became his choice.

Dairyland, headquartered in West Bend and founded in 1907, opened its Clinton station in 1967, making this the Rock County operation’s 50th year. It became part of Dow AgroSciences in 2008, but Dow is scheduled to merge with DuPont this summer.

Regardless, work goes on for Campbell and his crew. He is one of the company’s 13 soybean breeders, located at eight research stations in seven states and Canada, all working to make genetic gains in their products, which are grown in plots that include Argentina and Puerto Rico.

Dairyland released 13 new soybean varieties for the 2017 planting season, and Campbell continues to be one of those at the forefront of the action.

“Whether or not you’re talking about a sample of a million or 100,000, all soybean varieties start with a single seed.”

And so he keeps shooting for the always-elusive goal, but when does he take a break from dirt, seeds and yields?

Well, six weeks of vacation have allowed Campbell and his wife, Bonnie Jean, plenty of time to travel in their motor home. They take an annual winter golfing trip to the South or Southwest. His other interests include autocross, airplanes, attending Milwaukee Brewers games and regional theater productions, while he’s also a history buff, especially when it comes to World War II.

Campbell isn’t sure when those pursuits will occupy much more of his time, so he keeps plugging away at a job he loves.

“With the merger, who knows if they’ll want an old guy like me around?” Campbell said. “But I have yet to work since I’ve been here. This isn’t work to me … it’s fun.”

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