Organic, Specialty Crops get Boost with new AgriLife Research Breeder

Nov 13, 2020

Specialty crops such as barley, guar, lentils and cowpea may not be as well-known as corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum, but Texas A&M AgriLife and the Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences are investing in their future with the hire of a new plant breeder.

Waltram Ravelombola, Ph.D., hired in August as a new Texas A&M AgriLife Research organic and specialty crop breeder in Vernon, is already establishing germplasm and developing genomic resources for crops of interest.

“My research focuses on developing specialty crop and row crop cultivars that are suitable to the organic cropping systems in Texas and beyond,” Ravelombola said.

Suitable specialty crops for Texas

Ravelombola said he is using a genome resequencing approach, genotyping-by-sequencing to target traits of interest to growers, such as drought, heat and salt tolerance, enhanced nitrogen fixation in legumes, disease/pest resistance and adaptability to organic farming systems.

In the coming months, Ravelombola said he will focus on generating preliminary data for these traits in order to select parent plants for crossings and to secure further funding support for his program.

Initially, he said he will focus on winter lentils, guar, cowpea and organic barley, working jointly with Texas A&M AgriLife faculty already conducting research with these crops.

“We are seeking to expand the lentil market in Texas to meet national and international demand,” Ravelombola said. “Winter hardiness, food grade and nitrogen fixation are the traits we are focusing on for the lentil project.”

Guar has an established market and is widely grown by farmers around the Vernon area, he said. However, very few guar cultivars are available on the market, making this crop highly vulnerable to climate change and disease/pest outbreaks.

Ravelombola said the cowpea acreage also is significant in Texas. This crop can generate revenue for farmers and is well-suited for crop rotations such as the winter wheat/cowpea rotation.

“I am particularly interested in developing short-season, drought- and heat-tolerant, and biofortified cowpeas,” he said.

Another area Ravelombola said he is excited to start working with is barley.

“The Texas brewing industry has increased at least four times in the last decade,” he said. “This could be a market for barley with good malting properties. In addition, organic barley is still new, and our program would like to catch up on this area.”

Ravelombola said his approach is to integrate conventional and modern tools in plant breeding. His research will focus on understanding the genetic basis of the abiotic and biotic stresses in crops and use genomic selection and high-throughput phenotyping to select varieties best suited to Texas climates.

Research experience

Prior to joining AgriLife Research, Ravelombola was a research assistant for molecular plant breeding and genetics at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. His research centered on conducting a genome-wide association study for salt and drought tolerance in cowpea.

Before going to Arkansas to further his studies, Ravelombola was a research assistant for crop improvement and plant protection at the National Center of Research Applied to Rural Development in the Department of Agronomic Research, Antananarivo, Madagascar.

He earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Antananarivo. At the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, he earned additional master’s degrees in cell and molecular biology and statistics and analytics, as well as a doctorate in horticulture.

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