40 YEARS OF ‘THE FARMER’
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Roundup Ready beans’ roots go back to Eastern Shore farm
About a quarter century ago, the first soybean plants, which could shake off an herbicide dousing, emerged from the soil of a farm in Queen Anne’s County, Md.
The herbicide was Monsanto’s Roundup and the plants became known as Roundup Ready.
They introduced to American agriculture the first GMO (genetically modified organism) crop, which today dominate the marketplace.
The farm, known as Bennett’s Outlet and which is owned by the family of Thomas and Lauretta Rhodes, borders Rt. 50 just west of Chesapeake College and the intersection with the road leading to the University of Maryland’s Wye Research Center.
Jim Nelson was director of the Wye Institute in those days and he was acquainted with a fellow named John Schillinger, then director of soybean research at Asgrow.
Schillinger came East, stopped in to see Nelson and at one point wondered if Nelson knew of any farms in the area where he might be able to do some soybean research
Now — and this is in the late 1970s — young Billy Rhodes was a senior at Salisbury State where he played soccer and became friends with young Maurice Nelson, Jim’s son.
“Why don’t you talk to Billy Rhodes?:” the elder Nelson advised Schillinger. “The farm is just at the end of road.”
Schillinger met with the Rhodes family twice, the second time at the home farm
“Mom fed him some of her famous crab cakes and biscuits,” Billy recalls. “That sealed the deal.”
Schillinger acquired about 35 acres of Bennett’s Outlet farm where he trained young Rhodes in the intricacies of the soybean breeding business.
What emerged through the years was a research partnership involving Monsanto, Asgrow Seed and a firm called Agracetus, headquartered in Madison, Wis, and specializing in genetic manipulation.
The search for the Roundup Ready bean began in earnest in 1989. The search did not go well at first, Rhodes recalls. All the plants in the early test rows succumbed to the herbicide.
Then two years later, on an acre test plot Rhodes can see from his office window it happened.
Three rows, untouched by the herbicide. From those seeds and ever expanding breeding would come this first bag on the market of Roundup Ready soybeans.
Both Schillinger and Rhodes left Asgrow as the century ended, Schillinger founded Schillinger Seeds, which is now Schillinger Genetics, and the two old partners are on another mission…. To develop non-GMO soybeans for the aquaculture and poultry industries. That’s right. Non-GMO, and particularly bred for production by Delmarva growers.
Schillinger and Rhodes have launched eMerge Genetics, the industry’s first premium non-GMO soybean brand.
Looking back on the impact Roundup Ready soybeans had on the region’s agriculture, Dr. Robert Kratochvil, University of Maryland Extension agronomist, said it was a rather “dramatic” switch from non-transgenic beans to varieties with the herbicide tolerant trait.
“Folks switched from non Roundup Ready beans to all in the course of two to three years,” Kratochvil said in an interview last month.
At the time of its debut, the switch was not without concerns from farmers.
As seed sales were going “very well” according to Asgrow Seed representatives in a March 1996 article in The Delmarva Farmer, farmers were wary of the required agreement from Monsanto not to save Roundup Ready beans out of the field for planting the following year. At that time, the European Union and Japan were still considering whether or not to accept the genetically modified beans.
The concerns were short-lived though. Later that month, soybean industry groups announced their support in planting the beans and farmers began growing them to what is now more than 98 percent of the country’s soybean acres.
A more lasting effect of the wide adoption of the technology was impact to public soybean breeding programs, one-time bastions of soybean variety development.
“They were sort of left out of access to the technology. It put them behind in developing public varieties,” Kratochvil said.
The climate around glyphosate tolerant soybeans continues to evolve, as the original patents’ expiration allows growers some leeway in saving the seed for replanting. And farmers now operate, to varying degrees, with herbicide resistant weeds from years of use of Roundup Ready seeds and the like.