Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences is set to open a new chapter in its storied wheat breeding program with the addition of Esten Mason, associate professor and wheat breeder at the University of Arkansas.
Mason, who joins the college’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences Aug. 15, will take the baton from longtime leader of the college’s wheat breeding program Scott Haley as he transitions into retirement at the end of the academic semester.
“It’s really unusual and very rare in the public sector to have an opportunity for a transition,” said Haley, who’s invested 22 years of his career in the wheat breeding program. “That’s going to be great. [Mason is] coming at a busy time of year in August, when we finish harvesting and have a month to start planting field trials. He’ll come in the middle of that which is great because he’ll get to see the transition and participate in it, as well as bring some new ideas to the program.”
A background in wheat breeding and investments in new technology
Mason received his bachelor’s from Texas A&M University, where he studied biology and wheat research. Later, after starting graduate school at Texas A&M, he had a chance to see Nobel Prize-winning agronomist Norman Borlaug speak. “I can remember this moment coming out of the talk — ‘Man this made sense to me’ — and I decided that I wanted to be a plant breeder. Since then it’s been a path in wheat breeding,” he said.
Mason joined the University of Arkansas in 2010 after doing post-doc work in Mexico at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center — known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT. There, he worked as a breeder focusing on heat stress and drought on wheat. He brought that expertise to Arkansas, where his program dealt with work on strip rust, scab and water logging stress.
At Arkansas, “we use the newest tools called genomic selection and have been doing that for the last five years,” said Mason. “We can predict how lines will perform before you test in the field. We can break the genome down into little pieces of DNA, assign values, and within a line you can add up those values and predict how a line will perform. That’s one of my strengths coming into this position.”
Haley said that Mason’s use of cutting-edge technologies is a real plus for the future of the wheat breeding program, which has been around for six decades.
“The other thing he’s been involved with is using newer technology — information we can gather through drone imagery and use to make our breeding programs more efficient and productive,” said Haley. “He has really been on the forefront of that, so that’s another area we’ll benefit. The program will be making a step forward in that area. He also has a passion for working with farmers to improve their farms.”