• Peas in a Pod

    by Scott Miller

Badly wounded feet wouldn’t prevent Roy Ogle from scouting fields of peas with Chris Ray.
Roy — 49 years Chris’s senior — had retired from Clemson three years before Chris arrived on campus as an undergraduate in 1990 to study horticulture. Chris planned to return to the family vegetable farm in Orangeburg County after graduation. A World War II veteran from Tennessee, Roy never intended to come to Clemson at all.
Neither would ever leave.

While generations apart, Roy and Chris share a love of Southern peas, gardening and old-fashioned plant breeding — crossing the flowers of plants with desirable traits and growing them over and over to develop the heartiest, tastiest, most profitable varieties.
The unlikely pair formed a strong bond in the campus farmland affectionately referred to as “the Bottoms,” looking for pea plants most resistant to disease and insects. This land on the southern end of campus, just across Perimeter Road, was once farmed by University founder Thomas Green Clemson. Today, it’s a fertile bed for agricultural research.

A plant breeder, Roy created pea and sweet potato varieties in those fields that remain popular in gardens and roadside stands throughout South Carolina even today — a rarity, an anomaly really, for a career field that’s all about producing new and better varieties.

If you eat peas or sweet potatoes grown in South Carolina or the Southeast, you’ve tasted Roy’s work.
“The greatest compliment I ever received … my wife had introduced me to a senator,” Roy recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘So you’re Roy Ogle.’ I said, ‘Guilty.’ He said, ‘Your reputation precedes you. I know all about those peas.’ He obviously grew them, you know.
“He said, ‘You know, you are exactly what Thomas Green Clemson expected out of Clemson University. He expected a young professor that would work with students and at the same time help the farmers have a better life.’”

  • A WWII veteran and hero

Roy talks about landing in France after D-Day.

Roy talks about entering a Nazi concentration camp.

As a young man, Roy enlisted in the Army Reserves during his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, hoping to avoid the draft. Just six months later, he was drafted.

Roy landed at Omaha Beach in November 1944, five months after D-Day, as a member of the 84th Infantry Division. The unit moved eastward through Paris and joined combat at the “Siegfried Line.” The 84th Division marched north to Marche, Belgium. On the second day it started snowing, and it snowed every day for six weeks.

Snow seeped into Roy’s leather combat boots. While moving toward enemy lines, a tree burst nearby. Roy was hit with shrapnel that ripped through several layers of jackets and clothing, a thick cotton armor that likely saved his life.
Roy would spend two weeks in a military hospital. The doctor largely ignored the shrapnel wound in his chest, more concerned with his right foot, which had turned black. The doctor considered amputating the foot, but opted against it as color returned a week later.
“They called it trench foot during World War I. During World War II, they called it frost bite,” Roy says, wearing sandals to help alleviate the pain and swelling in his feet. He continues to receive treatment.

  • All I ever wanted to do

As a child, Roy learned to grow broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, cherries and all sorts of fruits and vegetables from his father, a farm foreman at the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station. This was the Great Depression. Money was tight. Food was not. “I think my interest (in agriculture) stemmed from the fact that he just felt it was a good life. It was a good one to follow,” Roy says.

Rejecting offers for a long military career, Roy was discharged in 1946. He returned to the University of Tennessee to study plant breeding. “That’s all I ever wanted to do, and that’s all I ever really did, to tell you the truth of the matter,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Roy continued his dream of a career in plant breeding, completing his master’s degree from the University of Delaware in one year. He earned his doctorate at the University of Maryland in 1952 and later took a job as a plant breeder at the University of Rhode Island.
Several years later, Roy received a call from a department chair at Clemson who had heard Roy present a paper on his thesis. Roy said he was offered a job without an interview. He had never visited campus.
“I thought that was just funny that I would take a job at a school I’d never even considered. He told me what it was like, and I could not have made a better move. It was a perfect spot,” Roy says.
A former adviser at the University of Maryland who had worked at Clemson previously himself, suggested Roy take the job but look to advance elsewhere after three years, Roy says. That was 1957. Roy was 34. He would spend the rest of his career in regalia and orange.
“He visited me after three years, he looked at me and said — I had built a new house, by the way — he looked at me and he said, ‘You’re not going to leave are you?’ And I said ‘No, I like it too much here.’

“The thing I discovered about Clemson when I first came here was the esprit de corps. I have never seen a school with better esprit de corps than Clemson University. It’s just the students themselves that make up the difference,” he says.

Roy and his wife moved to an assisted living facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2015 to be closer to their children, following an automobile accident. “I miss Clemson every day,” Roy says.

He’s 93 now.

  • Roy and Chris

On a recent weekday at the assisted-living home, Roy introduces Chris Ray to everyone who enters the room, sounding like a proud father when explaining Chris’s leadership role at Clemson and how difficult it must have been to schedule this visit to Tennessee. Chris now is director of the Clemson Experiment Station, which conducts research in laboratories, farms and forests on the Clemson campus and at six research and education centers throughout South Carolina.
The two perk up when discussing the favorable traits of plant varieties. “Silver King” sweet corn retains its sweetness after being picked, while the sugars in other varieties more quickly turn into starch and lose flavor. “Park’s Whopper” tomatoes produce large fruits, perfectly sized for slicing on sandwiches. “Cherokee” sweet potatoes, which are credited to Roy, are able to produce sprouts on numerous stems, while other varieties only produce on the plant’s central stem.

Roy may be best known for his work with peas. During his 30 years at Clemson, Roy bred hundreds of crosses of Southern peas. Peas were important for South Carolina families, particularly in rural areas and in times of financial stress. They were hardy, easy to grow. They were an inexpensive food source and, therefore, a staple in South Carolina gardens.

“I was amazed at how many people grew Southern peas in South Carolina. Just about everybody,” Roy says. “And they’d all tell me, if I introduced myself to somebody, they’d say, ‘Oh I know you. You’re the one who introduced those peas.’” Chris learned of Roy’s reputation shortly after arriving on campus.
“He developed the best pea varieties ever released by Clemson University — Hercules, Colossus, Clemson Purple Hull,” Chris says.

Chris Ray talks about Roy Ogle as a plant breeder.

  • The only tractor driver

Pictured above: Ogle peas growing in a field at Clemson’s Simpson Research and Education Center.

Chris had family ties to Clemson. His uncle Thomas Ray quarterbacked the Tiger football team from 1963-1965. His grandmother was a friend of then-coach Frank Howard. “When I applied for college, the only one I applied to was Clemson. It was either go to Clemson or farm. I probably would have stayed and farmed, myself, but my father encouraged me very much to go to Clemson and get a degree.”
While studying horticulture, Chris worked at the Bottoms along with other students, assisting professors with agricultural research projects. “Matter of fact, I was the only one in the group that knew how to drive a tractor, so I got that job,” Chris says.

This is when Chris met Roy, who was maintaining a few research projects during his retirement. “I thought, well, I found a famous plant person, so I was excited to get to know him,” Chris says. Roy remembers Chris as a sharp farm boy with old-fashioned agricultural know-how.

Chris planned to return home, build greenhouses and grow vegetables and flowers. A professor, however, offered him a spot in graduate school. Chris jokes that he may not have been invited to graduate school if he wasn’t the only tractor driver.
During grad school, Chris took a job in the Seed Certification Department and would progress through the ranks in the Clemson Public Service and Agriculture Division while pursuing his doctorate. Through the years, Chris has been Agricultural Services Laboratory director, Plant Industry and Regulatory Services department head and Department of Fertilizer and Seed Certification manager. He’s been at Clemson 26 years and has no plans to leave.

“It’s home to me now,” he says of Clemson. “The whole environment, the climate, the people, I just can’t think of a better place to be.”

Chris Ray talks about the evolution of plant breeding.

  • Preserving a legacy

In 2005, Chris was managing the University’s Seed Certification Program when approached by an administrator who considered pulling the plug on the two cold-storage facilities preserving seed. The systems are expensive to operate. Chris was to document the coolers’ inventories.
“All of Dr. Ogle’s legacy was still in the germ plasm facility there near campus,” Chris says.

Chris needed breeders’ documentation to know exactly what was in all those drawers of seeds. He called Roy, who still had a large stack of books documenting every cross he made during 30 years of plant breeding at Clemson. Roy could recite his experiments from memory. He directed Chris to SC84-319. That seed stemmed from a cross Roy made during his first year at Clemson in 1957.
Chris was a bit skeptical. “He hadn’t consulted any notes or anything,” Chris says.
“I took those books and went back to the cooler, and I started looking through those drawers, and lo and behold, I found 84 dash 319, and so I planted some out that spring.”

The seed had sat dormant in the cold-storage facility for 21 years. Fearing the seeds wouldn’t germinate, Chris planted them densely. He had to thin out the plants as the seeds surprised him with their vigor.
Chris and Roy scouted the fields together weekly at that point, making sure each plant had the true traits of 84-319 — large seeds, disease resistance and purple hulls, among other attributes.

“That’s the art of plant breeding. You have to be able to look at a row of plants and recognize the one that’s different in a good way,” Chris says. “You have to have a good eye.”

Today’s plant breeding program is much different than the one Roy knew. When Chris was starting out, the University had two breeders working with peaches and soybeans. Today, Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology Program includes more than 20 world-class researchers stationed around South Carolina using the latest technologies in genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, computational biology and robotics to develop superior-performing crop varieties that will boost farming income.
“There were no transgenic crops when Dr. Ogle was working. That hadn’t been invented yet,” Chris says of the process of engineering desired traits into a plant’s DNA. Today, breeders can identify genetic markers in plants and toss out the ones without desired traits immediately. Roy had to identify plants with favorable traits and breed them together by crossing flowers, then growing thousands of plants year after year to select the best plants to carry forward. What took Roy five or more years, could be done in a year now, Chris says.

Roy has watched the evolution of plant breeding throughout his retirement. “When they first started talking about gene splicing, I thought that was pie-in-the-sky thinking, and it would never happen, but it did happen,” Roy remembers. “But you know what? It still takes a plant breeder. These modern companies still employ plant breeders.” The breeder, he says, is still needed to identify the desirable traits to build useful plants.

Roy mastered that art. He developed hundreds of seed lines at Clemson and hit a few homeruns, in part, because he took so many at bats. That’s the persistence and patience needed of a good plant breeder.
“I was committed to doing work that was slow and tedious,” Roy says. Says Chris: “He was a workhorse is what he was. Breeding is a numbers game, and Dr. Ogle was extremely good at playing it.”

Chris Ray talks about the art of plant breeding.

  • Giving life, and a name, to SC84-319

Testing on SC84-319 would continue for the next 10 years. There in the Bottoms, Roy and Chris would share stories of hunting, fishing and shelling Southern peas while walking through fields weeding out plants that lacked desirable traits.

Chris remembers Roy had cut the tops out of his shoes to alleviate the swelling and pain that lingered from the frostbite. Roy remembers Chris’s strong work ethic.
“The only thing Dr. Ogle ever asked of me when we worked on the pea, is one time he said, ‘Would you mind if I named the variety?’” Chris says. Chris declined. He already had a name in mind.
“Dr. Ogle was kind of taken back because I was always pretty nice to him,” Chris laughs. “I did that so he wouldn’t steal his own thunder.”

After years of testing disease resistance and yield potential, the Clemson University Experiment Station this year released SC84-319 as a new plant variety called the Ogle Southern Pea. The pea features a large seed for eating, strong yield potential, a colorful purple hull and disease resistance, particularly to the costly blackeye cowpea mosaic virus.

The variety has performed well in informal taste tests too, including Roy’s. The chef at his assisted living home has prepared the pea for all of the residents.
The seed is produced at the Clemson Experiment Station and available for purchase through the S.C. Crop Improvement Association, a cooperative with Clemson, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies, that develops and distributes seeds to growers. The S.C. Crop Improvement Association runs the foundation seed program to provide growers with the highest-quality planting stock available. The association also provides cold storage to preserve seed. Chris and Roy are both credited as plant breeders for the Ogle Southern Pea.
Clemson released the seed publicly this year, rather than licensing it to a seed company, so growers can preserve the seeds themselves. “That benefits South Carolina growers,” Chris says. “That’s squarely in the land-grant mission. The core of our mission is to help our growers.”

“I think every plant breeder hopes that his variety lasts forever,” Roy says. “Nothing could have pleased me more than to have had a pea named after me.”

Chris Ray talks about why Clemson has a plant breeding program.

Scott Miller is a writer and editor for Clemson’s Public Service and Agriculture division.