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A True Southern Gentleman

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With quick wit and his trademark smile, Joe Bouton discusses how his life's work has helped shape plant breeding worldwide
Joe Bouton
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Bouton's favorite story

I know it is an obligatory statement, a cliché even, that when men are praised that they give credit to their wife and family. But, I want to say in the strongest terms possible that the love and support of my wife, Mary Jeanne, was indispensable for me in my career and personal life. That our children, and now grandchildren, are happy and successful is due solely to her influence. However, as anyone who has met Mary Jeanne will attest, she is not one to suffer fools lightly.

For example, we went to her class reunion a couple of years back and began talking about one of her old boyfriends who had become a shoe salesman. In all fairness, he was very successful, but at that point in my career, I was a senior vice president at the Noble Research Institute, and I felt pretty good about myself so I leaned over to her and said, "Aren't you glad you married me. I'm an accomplished scientist and a senior vice president." She just smiled, turned to me and said softly, "Sweetie, if I had married him, he'd be the accomplished scientist and senior vice president."

Throughout his 35-year career as a scientist and educator, the motivation for Joe Bouton, Ph.D., has been simple help farmers and ranchers.

"I come from a farm family," Bouton said, "so I wanted to give farmers and ranchers new varieties of forages that were better than what they used before so they could increase their yield or productivity and improve their bottom line. I always felt I could make an impact in that way."

By the time he retires from Noble Research Institute on Dec. 31, Bouton will have made an enormous impact on the world of plant breeding and agriculture.

An internationally recognized forage breeder and geneticist who helped establish the Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division and served as its first director, Bouton has helped countless farmers and ranchers by improving key traits within such forages as alfalfa and tall fescue. His research programs have helped develop 17 commercial products, all of which were bred to have improved quality and durability. He is best known for releasing Alfagraze alfalfa, MaxQ tall fescue, and Durana and Patriot white clovers.

"Joe Bouton's contribution to the Noble Research Institute during the past 15 years is incalculable," said Bill Buckner, Noble Research Institute president and CEO. "His vision, leadership and expertise have created one of the world's most reputable plant breeding groups and have contributed greatly to the Noble Research Institute's overall excellence."

Growing a Division
Bouton is a Mississippi native, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Mississippi State University and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Florida. He served as a breeding researcher and professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Georgia from 1977 to 2004.He became associated with the Noble Research Institute in 1997 in an advisory capacity for the newly formed Forage Biotechnology Group, the predecessor to today's Forage Improvement Division.

In March 2001, Bouton became the Forage Biotechnology Group's acting head, guiding the group's work on the development of improved forage grasses and legumes for the Southern Great Plains. When the group attained divisional status three years later, he became its first director (and later one of the organization's senior vice presidents). The new division found a home in a new 85,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art research facility on the Noble Research Institute campus. Under Bouton's direction, key projects were developed, and more than 60 employees were eventually hired.

"The research received national recognition, but, most importantly, the new cultivars we began breeding are now starting to reach the market place. That's the true mark of success," said Bouton, who has been recognized by his peers with numerous honors, including the American Forage and Grassland Distinguished Grasslander Award and the Crop Science Society of America Martin and Ruth Massengale Lectureship, and most important to him, Progressive Farmer's Man of the Year in Service to Southeastern Agriculture.

Bouton held the director's post until mid-2010, when he returned to his forage breeding and genetics projects. "The time had come to hand off the division to a younger person with the energy to take it to the next level," he said. E. Charles Brummer, Ph.D., became the division's second director in August 2010.

As Bouton nears his 65th birthday his long-held targeted retirement date and having completed most of his research projects, he has begun embracing the next phase of his life. His colleagues across the country and around the world offered unique perspectives on the breeding outcomes from the insightful, generous Southern gentleman with a delightful sense of humor.

International Connections
"Joe understands farmers' needs. When he released Alfagraze, a variety of alfalfa that could be either grazed or made into hay [in the mid-1990s], that was a big breakthrough for farmers," explained Donald Wood, a researcher at the Center for Applied

Genetics Technologies in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia whom Bouton hired in 1977. "He also has a natural ability to gather scientists from around the globe and lead them in successful forage breeding projects."

Those projects have included a long-standing collaboration with Grasslanz Technology Ltd. in New Zealand. In the mid-1990s, Bouton traveled to New Zealand for a year to work with John Caradus, CEO of Grasslanz, in starting a white clover breeding program for the United States. The collaboration yielded two white clover cultivars (Durana and Patriot) that are now the benchmarks for white clover cultivars in America.

"Joe is quick to indentify new breeding targets that will result in developing cultivars that provide farmers with new options and improved profitability," Caradus said. "He's just got that breeder's eye for knowing which way to go."

Caradus said Bouton also has led much of the thinking in the United States on the need for safe fungal endophytes to be used in fescue cultivars. Bouton joined forces with Grasslanz to launch the MaxQ endophyte onto the market a decade ago, explained Caradus. Most recently, that ongoing collaboration yielded Forage Improvement Division's Texoma MaxQ II, a quality cool-season perennial tall fescue that can eliminate the potential for toxicity in livestock and also survive the blazing summer heat of the United States' Southern Great Plains.

"I always felt it was important that individual scientists work with each other within the organization, but also create synergy with scientists outside the organization," Bouton said. "When we work together, we produce better science, develop better technologies and create better varieties."

A Legacy Realized
Bouton has had the privilege of personally witnessing the impact his varieties have had on agricultural producers. While traveling through Virginia not long after Alfagraze was released, Bouton stopped at a roadside café and saw a farmer wearing a cap with the "Alfagraze" logo emblazoned on the front. "You never know what is going to come out of the mouths of farmers, but I decided to talk to him," Bouton said. "Pointing to his cap, I asked, Do you like that variety?' and he said, Oh, yeah, I love it.' Then I told him who I was. He took me to his farm to see his fields of Alfagraze. Seeing a variety go from the laboratory to success in a farmer's field is a bit like watching a child grow up. When you actually produce something tangible and that variety is accepted by farmers and the seed industry, that's validation of the work."

Bouton experienced similar praise not just for his variety development but for his broad pursuit to bettering agriculture during his leadership at the Noble Research Institute. During the International Symposium on Molecular Breeding of Forage and Turf in Salt Lake City this past June, Bouton learned that the division he had helped establish had become internationally recognized.

"At breakfast one day, I ran into an elderly lady from Mongolia," he said. "She asked where I worked, and I told her. Ah,' she said, the Noble Research Institute very, very excellent organization.' That is the kind of story that makes you realize the Noble Research Institute has established a brand that is recognized around the world."

And that, he says, was his goal as a division director. "I wanted people around the world to hear about the Noble Research Institute and its work," he said. "I wanted people to think, Because you belong to that organization, we know you're in the upper echelon. We know you do good work.' I think we have achieved that."

In his personal research and as director, Bouton said he has accomplished his objectives of serving the Noble Research Institute mission and his personal credo of assisting agricultural producers. "I can look back on my career and feel I left a positive mark," said Bouton, smiling. "I helped farmers do more. They feed the world. That's amazing to an ole boy from the Mississippi Delta."