On his frequent flights to Washington D.C., R. James Cook sits on the left side of the airplane so he can see the family farm where he grew up when the plane begins a right turn over Moorhead, Minn., for its approach to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Cook is pleased the farm is still in the family, run by his younger brother. But not even nostalgia makes him wish for those childhood days when he milked cows by hand. Winter chores were especially onerous.
Like many a farm boy, Cook went off to college in search of a better future. He enrolled in North Dakota State University, intending to become a county agent. He received his bachelor’s degree in animal science, but his career changed directions during his senior year when he was employed as a time-slip employee working in the USDA Agriculture Research Service greenhouse. There, Cook’s interest in plant science was sparked, eventually leading him to a doctorate in plant pathology at the University of California, Berkeley.
His doctoral dissertation was on the interaction of fusarium, from the spore germ stage in the soil up to the time it penetrates a plant to cause disease. “We call that the prepenetration phase when the fungus is vulnerable to attack by its natural enemies. I studied that process by which bacteria in soil intercept fungus and kill it before it has a chance to infect the plant.”
Upon graduation, Cook worked as a NATO post doctorate in Australia, then was hired as a USDA-ARS scientist at WSU in 1965. Here, he built a world reputation for research on soil-borne diseases. Cook’s arrival coincided with expansion of the federal unit’s emphasis on smut diseases to include root diseases.
“C.S. Holton, (then head of the program) told me that my job was to control the root diseases of wheat. He said, ‘You can study them all you want, but your job is to control them.'”
Cook’s efforts have brought world acclaim.
His first breakthrough came in the early 1970s when he collaborated with Bill Haglund, then a WSU faculty member at Mt. Vernon, to fumigate wheat plots. Fumigation revealed for the first time what healthy wheat looked like.
“Orville Vogel was one of the first people to come and look at my plots. I’ll never forget his words. He kind of shook his finger and said, ‘I knew it. I knew there was something wrong with my wheats. I knew they haven’t been growing the way they’re supposed to. That’s the way they’re supposed to look. What did you do here?'”
Cook’s research made such an impression on Vogel that the renowned scientist became a strong supporter. It may even have been a factor in Vogel’s establishment of the Orville A. Vogel Wheat Research Fund, which has raised $1.3 million for research.
When he fumigated, Cook revealed the genetic potential of wheat, up to the limit of water supply. In the absence of disease, yield potential is a factor of genetic potential, fertilizer, water, degree days and light. The plant itself has the potential to produce 180-200 bushels per acre with optimum sunshine, moisture and heat units (growing degree days). Cook’s research demonstrated that in the 20-inch annual rainfall area of eastern Washington’s Palouse Country wheat has the potential to consistently yield 100-120 bushels per acre for winter wheats and 80-90 bushels an acre for spring wheat. The season provides only enough growing degree days to produce 120-150 bushels per acre, but water usually limits the potential to 100-120 bushels.
Cook says the best growers in the Palouse are operating near wheat’s genetic potential for their environment with conventional tillage. But, no-till production could add up to an another 20 bushels per acre.
Today’s no-till operators, who plant directly into the previous crop’s stubble without tilling it under, are averaging about 10 bushels an acre more than they would get with conventional tillage, Cook believes.
No-till carries risks that make some farmers reluctant to change their practices. Scientists need to lower the risk of diseases, weeds and rodent damage in no-till practices.
This is the challenge that Cook will face as occupant of the new R. James Cook Endowed Chair in Wheat Research, which is being established with a $1.5 million gift from the Washington Wheat Commission.
In his new position, Cook expects to concentrate on expanding the knowledge base and reducing the risks associated with no-till farming. This will involve continued work with federal, state and private-sector scientists in the areas of biological control and breeding.
Cook has used his research program as a platform for leadership in five scientific societies. Recently he was inducted to the Agricultural Research Service Hall of Fame.
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