Seed companies invest billions in R&D annually to bring new genetics, traits and more to your farm. We want to introduce you to a few of the faces behind the innovations. Learn more about their story and the challenges they face. Here's the fourth of an eight-part series.
With each mile he walked in Ohio corn fields as a youth, Kevin Cavanaugh’s love for agriculture and corn breeding grew. His first introduction to corn breeding was with detasseling—a summer job many teenagers dread but that the 14-year-old loved and used to launch his career.
“Believe it or not, I really enjoyed it. I worked pollinating corn my freshman year of high school and loved that, too,” Cavanaugh says. “After that I was hooked. I worked pollinating corn for six years through high school and college.”
His labor of love turned into a full-time career after he earned a PhD in plant breeding from Purdue University. No matter what, he knew he wanted to be involved in ag—plant breeding was a fortunate find that combined his interest in science and math with his love for the outdoors.
“When I was young I loved being on the farm and helping my dad,” Cavanaugh says. “I liked the seasons, outdoors and the opportunity to start new every spring.”
After graduating with his doctorate, Cavanaugh joined Beck’s, where he’s prospered for the past 25 years.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “I’m proud to say we’ve grown tremendously. I was hired as the only full-time research person, with a total of about 20 employees company wide, and today Beck’s has over 90 employees in the research area alone.”
The company is selling 23-times the amount of corn and soybeans it was when he started 25 years ago, Cavanaugh adds. He says with more mouths to feed globally, farmer production and, consequentially, Beck’s output need to increase. He expects to achieve that through gene editing platforms and with the digitization of agriculture.
“In breeding or crop improvement, I think gene editing will provide a step-change for agriculture,” he says. “While there are more corn breeders in the world than any other crop, gene editing can be applied to a broad array of crops.”
Combining better, targeted breeding with data will help advance the next era of ag.
“We’re able to collect and use data to give our customers better answers about products and practices,” Cavanaugh explains. “Using data efficiently, using AI [artificial intelligence], and using data to make better decision in the field are going to revolutionize ag like they have so many other industries.”
Before data can revolutionize ag, he says it needs to be easy to use for farmers and accepted by the public—challenges that could take a few more years to overcome.
Regardless of the challenges coming, Cavanaugh is optimistic about the future of agriculture.
“I love that every year and day are different, and you get to make decisions that affect your crop and farm’s outcome,” he says. “Those decisions could be a complete reverse of what you did last year. I love that farming keeps you on your toes.”