Master bean breeder readies for retirement

James Kelly has led the bean breeding and genetics program at MSU for four decades

James Kelly has led the bean breeding and genetics program at MSU for four decades. He is set to retire in 2020.
James Kelly has led the bean breeding and genetics program at MSU for four decades. He is set to retire in 2020.

For more than four decades, James Kelly has been ever-prominent in the business of bean breeding.

The Michigan State University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences has led the bean breeding and genetics program at MSU since his hiring in 1980. The program is responsible for selecting and developing bean varieties with an emphasis on yield, plant architecture, processing quality, drought tolerance and disease resistance. 

Throughout his career at MSU, Kelly has developed nearly 50 dry bean varieties. 

“Agriculture has always been a part of my life, since my youth growing up on a farm,” Kelly said. “In college, I found that the area I could best use applied science would be in the area of plant breeding and that has been my focus since I came to MSU in 1980.”

By creating varieties better equipped to manage disease and prevent yield loss, the bean breeding program supports Michigan farmers while also providing the groundwork to benefit food security worldwide.

Dry beans are a food security crop in many Latin American countries and a major crop in east Africa. Kelly supports programs in both of those regions through the MSU Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research, a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“One of our most important partnerships is the Feed the Future Innovation Lab,” he said. “I’ve had projects in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia with the goal to improve the commodities in their respective countries.”

One of Kelly’s most significant contributions to dry bean agriculture is assisting in the development of varieties that grow more upright, making them easier to harvest, he said.

“Back in the 1980s, beans were grown structurally like a small bush. In order to harvest those mechanically, you had to pull them out of the ground,” he said. “It was a three-step process. The types we have developed now are much taller and don’t fall over. So, farmers can come in and harvest direct, like they would harvest soybeans or wheat.”

Another priority for Kelly’s breeding program is creating more nutritional dry bean varieties, especially for those areas where dry beans are a staple and relied on to provide an alternative protein source to meat.

“It’s very important for certain sectors of society and typically in developing countries to have beans that can be a source of nutrients like iron and zinc,” he said.

As he nears retirement, Kelly is focused on preparing the next generation of plant breeders to continue developing crops that will improve agriculture both locally and globally.

“There is always going to be a need for plant breeding,” he said. “It plays a major role in improving crop productivity and changing crops to meet the changes in our environment. We need to continue to support the broad area of plant breeding. 

“I always say that plant breeding is where the rubber hits the road in food production. It starts with breeders and that’s a good thing, because we are contributing to not only the livelihood of farmers but also providing a healthy food source.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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