Just like thoroughbred owners and George Foreman, every plant breeder has a particular way of assigning names. Some breeders keep atlases in their offices so each kind of cotton and corn can bear the name of a different river. Others work their way through lists of military generals or paperback writers, which is how the world ended up with strawberries called Clancy and L’Amour.
Chris Ray, director of the Clemson University Experiment Center, uses a different system. “I name mine after retired plant breeders I respect a lot,” he says.
Accordingly, the newest South Carolina cowpea available to the state’s growers, released just over a month ago, is known as the Ogle Southern Pea. Ray is a longtime admirer of Roy Ogle, who retired from Clemson three years before Ray enrolled as an undergraduate horticulture student.
“Roy Ogle was one of the best teachers,” Ray says. “If you research some of his former students, they really went on to do some great things in life.”
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But Ray didn’t just arbitrarily choose the purple-hulled pea with big seeds and an impressive resistance to mosaic virus as a way to honor one of his field’s heroes. Ogle developed the plant, then known merely as SC84-319, in 1954. About a decade ago, Ray invited him to help grow out the seed so it could be put into circulation. Its new name recognizes not only Ogle’s career achievements, but the old-fashioned know-how he applied to the project and the durability of tradition in what’s become a high-tech industry.
“No matter how many molecular biologists you have, you still have to have a plant breeder,” Ray says. “Traditional breeding methods are very efficient and sufficient, so we didn’t need molecular markers. We didn’t need any kind of transgenics. We didn’t need any of the new technology.”
“No varieties come from a test tube,” he continues. “They all come from the field.”
Ogle grew up in Knoxville, where his father was superintendent of agriculture for the University of Tennessee. “My dad grew just about every plant you can imagine,” recalls Ogle, who’s now 93. “Of course, I learned an awful lot from him.”
During World War II, Ogle fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After three years of service, he considered making a career out of the military, but ultimately ended up at Clemson as a professor. He tinkered with peas almost as a sideline, coming up with two varieties in his first year on the job.
“I love the flavor of them,” Ogle says. “I never really cared for the old cowpea, but when it comes to the crowder pea, I feel very much different about that. And I think most people in South Carolina do: I think most people really love those peas.”
Over his years at Clemson, Ogle crossed those Southern pea strains every which way. Eventually, he had 300 distinct breeding lines. In good scientific fashion, he documented all of his experiments, but he could rattle off the trials without consulting his notebooks. Even today, he remembers how each pea was forged.
“I guess that’s just part of being a plant breeder,” Ogle says. “It’s like you remember your children, you know. You can kind of keep up with them by this point or that point, or what have you: They were all sizes and shapes and colors and so forth, so really it’s not as difficult as it sounds.”
While the peas were vibrant in Ogle’s mind, they languished at Clemson after he left the university in 1987. The surviving seeds were stored in a pair of coolers that was costly to operate. Too costly, in the view of one administrator: Ray in 2005 was asked to inventory the coolers’ contents in preparation for a potential shutdown.
Ray realized some of Ogle’s work might be worth preserving, but needed more information to decide which pea had the most potential. He called Ogle to ask his opinion. A few years before, Ray says, “Roy Ogle had come to my house, and he was real complimentary of my ability to grow peas, and so I got to know him. We’re both horticulturists, and we’re both country boys.”
Immediately, Ogle zeroed in on the SC84-319. “Chris and I talked about it, and we just decided between us that it would be a good contender,” he says. “The size appealed to me and to him, and we felt that alone would sell it.”
Every year, Ogle would tour the fields with Ray, walking on feet permanently damaged by frostbite sustained during the war. He alerted Ray to peas that deviated from the true pea’s traits so they could remove them from the breeding pool.
When Ogle was actively developing plants, a good eye was a breeder’s most important tool: He created his signature pea just one year after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. It took another 20 years for scientists to figure out how to insert foreign DNA into plant cells, a technique that led to the advent of lab-made crops.
According to Ray, once agricultural companies appreciated they could profitably tweak genes, training programs for agronomists largely shifted their emphasis to chemistry. In the early 1990s, when Ray was earning his bachelor’s degree, it wasn’t considered useful to study the kind of methods that Ogle had mastered.
“People abandoned traditional plant breeding, and then it became very apparent to the industry that we can’t live without them,” Ray says, referring to the current shortage of people to carry out projects dreamed up at the molecular level. “The pendulum always swings back.”
In homage to Ogle and the style of plant development he represents, Ray decided to release the Ogle pea without protection, meaning home gardeners are welcome to save its seeds.
“I hope it does bring credit to Clemson University,” Ogle says. “I’m really not interested in bringing credit to Roy Ogle. I’ve had my turn. But I really regard Clemson University as one of the finest undergraduate institutions in the world, and I believe I’m correct.”