To plagiarize Waylon and Willie, 'My heroes have always been plant physiologists.'
I have known far more cowboy heroes than plant physiologists or agronomists, entomologists or pomologists for that matter. However, during the past three and a half decades as an agricultural journalist, I have interviewed hundreds of agricultural scientists. It has been an amazing educational journey for me and hopefully for those who read Western Farm Press. Without them, there would be no Western Farm Press.
Talking with the hundreds of men and women of science who have dedicated their lives to feeding and clothing the world has revealed far more than just scientific knowledge. Integrity has been the cornerstone of everything they do. They guard it. They respect only facts and bank their careers on them. They do not compromise what research reveals, despite what pseudo-scientists and anti-commercial agriculture radicals regurgitate.
No one personifies scientific integrity better than plant physiologist V.T. Walhood. He is one of my heroes.
V.T. is 89 years old and a member of ‘The Greatest Generation,’ a term coined by Tom Brokaw to describe the generation which grew up in the U.S. during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II.
I have known V.T. for most of my career. I have written countless articles with him, detailing his work as a USDA plant physiologist and later a private consultant and cotton breeder. He has always been cotton seasons ahead of his time.
V.T. was honored recently for his 60 years of research service to the cotton industry at the annual state FFA cotton judging field day at California State University, Fresno. Bruce Roberts, CSUF agronomy professor and one of V.T.’s long-time science disciples, arranged for the well-deserved recognition.
From 1956-81, V.T. researched new cotton harvest aids, seed quality and chemical growth regulators at the USDA Cotton Research Station, Shafter, Calif. V.T.’s research on mepiquat chloride (PIX), contributed significantly to its commercialization as a very valuable tool to control cotton growth, reduce water use and improve lint quality. I recall seeing a research trial in the mid 1970s on this new chemistry at Murrieta Farms near Firebaugh, Calif. I photographed then farm manager Clyde Irion standing between two research plots, one where PIX had been applied and a control plot. Clyde’s arms were outstretched like a scarecrow in the photo as the best way to demonstrate the height difference in the cotton rows. The near-defoliation PIX-treated plot was probably a foot shooter than the non-treated plot. Clyde did not know how he would incorporate the new technology into his cotton, but he knew that chemistry to control plant height and internode length would be a boon to growing gangly and large Acala cotton. Researchers like Walhood learned how best to use it, and it remains one of the most significant tools in bringing in high quality cotton crops three decades later.
VT also did pioneering studies on the use of ethylene (Prep, etc.) to increase the rate of boll opening and leaf abscission in the cotton harvest, a breakthrough as significant as PIX.
V.T. was a pioneer in trying to narrow cotton row width from the traditional 38 to 42 inch row widths to more narrow-row configuration, down to as close as cereal grain rows. V.T. laughs today about some of his failed experiments, but he never quit searching for the answers. His work in this area was incorporated into what eventually became the standard for today’s narrow-row, 30-inch spindle picked cotton.
He had a hand in bringing Pima cotton to the valley, a shift that many believe saved the San Joaquin Valley cotton industry. V.T. for years planted Pima in his valley research plots and was not shy about his belief that the highest quality cotton in the world would do very well in the valley. Early on, many refused to believe Walhood, and even tried to prevent Pima from coming into the valley. However, visionaries like V.T. and others prevailed, and everyone is grateful they did.
After retirement from the government, V.T. could not quit. In 1981, he became a private consultant and began a breeding program to develop Pima and Acala varieties for specific growing conditions. He was an invaluable mentor for Chico State University, Plant Science Department, where he had long worked with the late Buel Mouser. He helped Buel with cotton production on the farm and later teamed up with him in a breeding program in the North State. V.T. played a pivotal role in establishing cotton in the Sacramento Valley, where it continues to be a critical source for cotton planting seed Beltwide.
He patented the first privately developed cotton variety (Acala M5) approved for release by the Acala Cotton Board.
However, it is not been so much what V.T. did as a plant physiologist that makes him my hero. It is his doggedness to make the world better for cotton producers and farmers in general that puts him high on my list. Maybe it was his Depression-era upbringing in North Dakota that made him so tenacious in his research pursuits. V.T. is also one of the nicest people you’ll ever know. He has a wily, slightly tilted grin and an infectious laugh that cannot help but leave you smiling. However, make no mistake, if you want to debate cotton production, don’t challenge V.T. If he believes he is right — which he usually is — he will take you on for all you’re worth. I would not make book against him.
I could go on and on about my hero the scientist V.T., but I learned something from the award ceremony at Fresno State recently that only cemented my hero worship of Dr. Walhood.
He was educated in a one-room rural school and high school in Pekin, N.D. He was in college at North Dakota State University when World War II broke out. In 1942 he volunteered for military service. As a combat infantry platoon leader in World War ll, he was awarded the Bronze Star in the Battle of Wingen-sur-Moder, France; the Purple Heart and Silver Star in the siege of Forbach, France; the Combat Infantry Badge; and three Battle Stars for combat in France and Germany.
After he was discharged in 1946, V.T. returned to the university to earn his agronomy degree. He later did graduate studies at UCLA where he received his doctorate.
I had no idea V.T. has such a distinguished military record. However, I am not surprised. After all, V.T. is part of ‘The Greatest Generation’ and he will always be my hero.