Out in the field with Breeder Dr Solomon Fekybelu
Pacific Seeds Sorghum Plant Breeder, Dr Solomon Fekybelu was a son of an Ethiopian police officer who never expected he’d be living in Toowoomba, Australia working as a scientist for an internationally renowned agricultural company – Pacific Seeds.
Dr Fekybelu is an expert in the field of plant genetics and breeding and dedicated his expertise to develop resilient sorghum hybrids that improve the competitive advantage and profitability for farmers.
“Technology is changing the way we predict and analyse new hybrid varieties. By using molecular tools and analysis, we can avoid lengthy and costly field trials in order to bring these varieties to market,” Dr Fekybelu said.
About 50 per cent of Australia’s sorghum is used domestically; the rest is exported to China and other Asian markets.
Dr Fekybelu said Pacific Seeds will soon introduce two new commercial hybrids that will significantly improve yield and midge tolerance.
“My plan is to replace the existing hybrid varieties we offer with new and improved ones over the next few years.”
His research is being done a long way from where he grew up in Ethiopia with his parents and brother and sister.
Dr Fekybelu witnessed the results of critical food shortages and insecurity firsthand growing up in Ethiopia, which inspired him to pursue a career in plant biology.
“The food supply crisis in Ethiopia was bad, but it ultimately led me to a career in plant sciences. I wanted to be part of the solution and because I was always interested in agriculture, I knew that is where I could make a difference.”
“If you can improve the genetic makeup of a crop to yield better, to adapt better, to tolerate diseases or pests then that is going to have a bigger impact to productivity.”
Dr Fekybelu studied plant genetics at universities in Ethiopia and the UK, before going on to get his PhD in plant breeding in South Africa.
After pursuing an academic career, it was a job advertisement to work for the Queensland Government which drew him to Australia.
“I coordinated the national and international projects related to the development of improved maize and sweet corn germplasm, it was a rewarding role where we improved the disease resistance and eating quality of sweetcorn.”
After seven years with the DPI, Dr Fekybelu came to Pacific Seeds in 2014 where he was tasked with running the sorghum breeding program to maintain the company’s competitive edge.
“We have just started a new initiative using genomic selection to increase genetic gain by improving prediction accuracy and reducing the time it takes to develop new hybrids. Unlike the conventional breeding methods, with genomic selection we will be able to focus on crosses and parent lines that are likely to succeed.”
An accurate prediction model means the process will be more precise, faster and efficient.
Mr Fekybelu says the next five years will focus on integrating new technologies such as high throughput phenotyping and genomic selection in the breeding program while continually improving the product portfolio of Pacific Seeds.