Dr. Jim Ballington Celebrates 45 years as a Small Fruits Breeder

Dr. Jim Ballington tasting muscadines

Dr. Jim Ballington tasting muscadines

On July 1, 2013, James R. Ballington officially retired as a Full Professor after working at NC State University for 45 years. Jim arrived on campus in 1968 and started working on his PhD in 1970 with Gene Galletta. In 1975 he was hired as an Assistant Professor and has a long history of breeding at NCSU including: peach breeding and genetics – 1975-1977, blueberry and strawberry breeding and genetics – 1977-1984, blueberry and bramble breeding and genetics – 1984-1990, blueberry, bramble and strawberry breeding and genetics – 1990 – 2003, blueberry and strawberry breeding and genetics – 2003 – 2008 and blueberry and muscadine grape breeding and genetics – 2008 – 2013.

Although he has bred many crops, Jim is most widely known and regarded for his expertise and knowledge of Vaccinium and is unquestionably the most widely recognized and leading breeder of blueberries in the U.S.  Jim has released 32 blueberry cultivars, 7 peach cultivars, 8 strawberry, 1 raspberry and 1 blackberry cultivar over his lifetime.  He has been awarded 7 plant patents, published 76 peer reviewed publications, and 4 book chapters. Over his lifetime he received many awards including the Wilder Medal from the American Pomological Society for outstanding achievement in small fruit cultivar development in 1998, Fruit cultivar award for O’Neal blueberry from ASHS in 2005, he was elected as a Fellow to ASHS in 2002, and won the B.Y Morrison Award from the USDA in 2008 for his achievements in horticultural plant breeding.

Jim’s impacts on the fruit breeding world are impressive.  His germplasm expeditions both formal (USDA sponsored) and informal have and will continue to have lasting value to the small fruit breeding community. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, OR houses 518 accessions under his name. He collected Vaccinium, Rubus and Fragaria germplasm from the US, China, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. The expeditions to the Andes region and China resulted in collection of Vaccinium and Rubus germplasm in their respective centers of diversity.

As anyone who has talked to him knows that Jim has an encyclopedic knowledge of not only Vaccinium but also species in other genera including Rubus and Fragaria. As some breeders are becoming less willing to share germplasm and breeding experiences with various types of germplasm, Jim willingly shared all he knew. He has left an impression on many a younger breeder with his vast knowledge of cultivated and wild germplasm.

Jim’s blueberry cultivars have had a significant impact on the development both domestic and imported markets. Domestically, he, along with colleagues at the USDA and the University of Florida, was one of the first breeders to widely utilize wild Vaccinium species adapted to the southern US in crosses. These crosses resulted in a new type of blueberry, with the name he coined “Southern Highbush”. Southern highbush blueberry types are the dominant type of  blueberry produced in the southeastern US states (NC, GA and FL) .  At this time, Jim’s cultivars or their descendants are among the key cultivars grown in the region. Approximately 60% of the commercial blueberry acreage in North Carolina is planted to cultivars Jim developed. The southeastern US is a key player in the domestic market with annual farm gate value of $179,830,000 (2009 USDA ERS) or approximately 33% of the total US farm gate value.   Internationally, The South American export market was built on one Jim’s releases. At the beginning of this growth surge, his cultivar ‘O’Neal was the most widely planted cultivar in South America.

Although Jim officially retired, he has plans to release 2 blueberry cultivars in the next year. The small fruit breeding community was very lucky to have him around for so many years.

-G. Fernandez

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