"The satisfaction of your work is in the quality of
arl Wernsman retired last year, but he didn’t leave his work behind. Indeed, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plant breeder is seemingly as productive as when he was a full-time faculty member and a William Neal Reynolds Professor.
Of course, a “part-time” work week for Wernsman usually encompasses around 40 hours. Wernsman is maintaining his tobacco breeding program thanks to Philip Morris USA, which is providing funding to keep the program afloat. For a tobacco company, funding a tobacco breeding program run by Dr. Earl Wernsman would seem the ultimate sure thing as far as investments are concerned.
Wernsman has developed an impressive list of tobacco cultivars, or varieties, both flue-cured and burley. He estimates that more than half the flue-cured tobacco acreage in the United States is planted in varieties he developed. He refers to flue-cured tobacco as Virginia or bright tobacco, pointing out that these days, flue-cured is really a misnomer. Tobacco is no longer cured in barns with flues; modern barns are equipped with heat exchangers.
While Wernsman’s career at North Carolina State University has spanned 36 years, he did not begin breeding tobacco until the 1980s. Until then, he taught plant breeding and did research on tobacco genetics. In the early 1980s, retirements created a void in the College’s tobacco breeding efforts.
“It was filling a void,” Wernsman said of his decision to begin breeding tobacco. “And I had tenure by that time.”
Whatever the reason, it was a decision that has benefitted tobacco growers. And 20 years later, Wernsman’s breeding program appears to be aging well. In fact, it may just be coming of age. It has been unusually productive in recent years, particularly where flue-cured varieties are concerned.
“It takes a while to get momentum going,” is Wernsman’s explanation.
But he has momentum now. From 1997 to 2000, he released, or made available to growers, four new flue-cured varieties and one new burley variety. Two more flue-cured varieties and one more burley variety became available to growers this year. Then there are the three other burley varieties released by Wernsman between 1989 and 1994.
The star among the flue-cured varieties is one called NC 71. It became available to growers in 1997; just three years later, in 2000, it was planted on 38 to 40 percent of U.S. flue-cured acreage. Growers love NC 71 because it has an unusual combination: high yield, good quality and disease resistance. NC 71 has been the highest yielding variety for the last five years in Official Variety Tests, and it offers growers outstanding resistance to a major tobacco disease, black shank.
Wernsman is fond of pointing out that nature rarely provides a free lunch, particularly to plant breeders. The breeder who wants to emphasize a particular trait — yield, for example — usually must pay with another trait — decreased quality or disease resistance. Yet NC 71 seems to break this rule.
But the best may be yet to come. NC 297, which has the same genetic black shank resistance system as NC 71, will probably be grown on 8 to 10 percent of U.S. tobacco acreage this year, the first it is available to growers. Wernsman said he’s been told by officials of Gold Leaf Seed Co., which has the exclusive right to sell NC 297 seed, that it will be planted on at least 25,000 acres this year. That’s particularly good for a new variety. Wernsman said NC 71 acreage will probably decline as growers switch to NC 297, which has some resistance to tobacco mosaic virus, which NC 71 does not and which was a problem in many tobacco fields in 2000.
Wernsman may be about to experience similar success with burley tobacco varieties. A burley variety called NC 4 was released in 2000 and became widely available to growers this year. With the exception of blue mold, NC 4 is resistant to virtually every disease that infects burley tobacco.
It’s the first contemporary burley cultivar with resistance to fusarium wilt, but it is also resistant to tobacco mosaic virus, black root rot, wildfire and a viral complex caused by tobacco etch virus, potato virus Y and tobacco vein mottle virus. It also has some resistance to root-knot nematodes and low resistance to black shank.
Wernsman thinks much of the market for NC 4 will be international, where its multiple disease resistance will make it attractive to growers in different countries with different problems.
Wernsman is unusual among public plant breeders in that he considers the international market for the cultivars he develops. He points out that U.S. tobacco acreage has declined by half in the last four years, a trend that may continue. He breeds cultivars for the companies that sell seeds as well as growers.
“American seedsmen have got to have international markets to survive,” he explained. One of his flue-cured varieties, NC 55, is the number one variety grown in Italy and is popular in other parts of Eastern Europe and Brazil. NC 55 has high yield, outstanding quality and is resistant to tobacco etch virus and potato virus Y, which is a particular problem in Italy.
“The big push for us will be in the burley arena,” he said. Another burley cultivar, NC 5, is on the way, and several other burley cultivars, which haven’t been named yet, are in the wings. All have the multiple disease resistance of NC 4 plus the black shank resistance system that has made NC 71 so popular.
Wernsman said his program has been successful because of the support it has received.
“I’ve been blessed with good support from North Carolina growers through the Tobacco Research Commission and the North Carolina Tobacco Foundation and with generous gifts from the industry, from Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds,” he said. “Because of the good support, I’ve been able to hire good people.”
Yet certainly the attitude Wernsman brings to his work has also played a part in the success of his program.
“One of the nice things about plant breeding is that you never achieve the ultimate,” he said. “The satisfaction of your work is in the quality of the fight.”
Earl Wernsman’s job satisfaction must be high, for he has waged and continues to wage the good fight.