From Student Worker to Endowed Chair: Roger Leonard, Entomologist

Linda Benedict, Bogren, Richard C.  |  3/6/2007 12:19:22 AM

Roger Leonard was named the Jack Hamilton Chair in Cotton Production, a new endowed chair for the LSU AgCenter. (Photo by Mark Claesgens)

Rick Bogren

When he first went to work at the LSU AgCenter’s Northeast Research Station in St. Joseph, 15-year-old Roger Leonard expected it to be just a summer job during high school. What it turned out to be, however, was the first step in a career that found him being named in 2006 the Jack Hamilton Chair in Cotton Production in the LSU AgCenter.

Leonard, an entomologist at the LSU AgCenter’s Macon Ridge Research Station at Winnsboro, focuses his research on the development and implementation of insect pest management strategies in cotton as well as in corn, grain sorghum and soybean.

But Leonard’s route took a turn when he enrolled in the pre-pharmacy program at what is now the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He decided, however, that he really didn’t want to be a pharmacist. So at the urging of Steve Crawford, a friend and mentor at the Northeast Research Station, where he continued to work during the summers, Leonard enrolled in Louisiana Tech to study agricultural engineering.

He continued to work at the research station and as a cotton scout in the summers. He enjoyed the work and decided he would pursue a career as a crop consultant. That led to an interest in agronomy and subsequent enrollment at LSU, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1984.

Leonard continued his studies at LSU, earning his master’s degree in entomology in 1987 and his doctorate in entomology in 1990. During his master’s studies, he worked as an independent crop consultant in Northeast Louisiana.

Jerry Graves was Leonard’s major professor during his study for the doctoral degree.

“It was a wonderful experience for me,” Graves said. “He stands out above and beyond – both in intelligence and work ethic. He probably taught me as much as I taught him. I never had a son, but if I had one, I’d want him to be like Roger.”

After he received his doctorate in 1990, Leonard was offered positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and with two agricultural chemical companies.

Larry Rogers, retired AgCenter vice chancellor and director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, was the resident director of the Northeast station at that time. He had hired Leonard for his first summer job there and offered him a research appointment at the Macon Ridge location.

“I’ve been here ever since,” Leonard said. “I planned to be an ag consultant, but I liked working for the University and decided to stay.”

Leonard’s specialty is cotton insect pest management.

“This field of science is always evolving and presents a range of challenges,” he said. “Although the pests occasionally change, the problems just seem to continue.”

In his role as a research entomologist in cotton integrated pest management, Leonard was appointed to replace Graves as the AgCenter’s representative on the state boll weevil commission and on the technical advisory group for boll weevil eradication.

“The boll weevil was a key pest for more than a century,” Leonard said. “This insect migrated from Mexico into the United States during the early 1890s.” The discovery and use of organic pesticides “helped manage this beast so farmers could harvest a crop.”

Although the boll weevil is not yet eradicated, Leonard expects it will, for all practical purposes, disappear from Louisiana soon. “This pest has been eradicated from Mississippi to the Atlantic Coast,” he said. “All that’s left is the Mississippi Delta and areas to the south and west.”

Now with the boll weevil nearly gone, cotton yields have substantially increased. “But when you remove one pest in a multi-pest environment, others will pop up,” he said.

“These pests have always been in cotton fields, but they were not as important because many of the sprays for the boll weevil provided coincidental controls,” Leonard said. “When those sprays were no longer needed, these other pests began to emerge to fill the gap.”

A primary pest that costs producers considerable yield losses and high production costs is the tobacco budworm, which over time developed resistance to the recommended foliar pesticides.

“The tobacco budworm problem was so severe in the early to mid 1980s, farmers were beginning to reduce cotton acreage and plant other crops,” Leonard said. “Fortunately, Bt became available in 1996 and eliminated problems with this pest.”

Bt cotton varieties contain a foreign gene obtained from bacillus thuringiensis. This bacterial gene, introduced genetically into the cotton seeds, protects the plants from damage by some insect pests. This technology, which was adopted about the same time that Louisiana was starting boll weevil eradication efforts, further reduced the frequency of broad-spectrum insecticide applications in cotton.

Leonard said the current major insect problems for cotton producers are the bollworm, cotton aphid and tarnished plant bug.

The Jack Hamilton Chair in Cotton Production to which Leonard was named was created by the Louisiana Cotton Producers Association, the Louisiana Independent Cotton Warehouse Association and the Louisiana Cotton Ginners Association to honor Jack Hamilton of Lake Providence.

Hamilton, who died in December 2001, was a cotton producer and ginner. He was an organizer and first president of the Louisiana Cotton Producers Association and served as president of the Louisiana Cotton Warehouse Association and the Southern Cotton Ginners Association.

Hamilton was named Man of the Year in service to Louisiana agriculture by Progressive Farmer Magazine, was named Cotton Ginner of the Year by the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and was awarded the Horace Hayden Memorial Trophy as National Ginner of the Year.

The endowed chair is funded by private contributions of $600,000, matched with $400,000 from the Louisiana State Board of Regents. The income from the endowment of $1 million helps support research programs, faculty travel, support staff salaries and resources for research and technology transfer projects.

“It is an opportunity for me to support the cotton industry even to a greater level than I have in the past,” Leonard said.

He said that much of his research in the past has been directed by the sources of funding.

“Self-generated funds take time,” Leonard said of the process of writing grants and applying for funding. “And they don’t necessarily meet current needs. The chair will allow me to use this funding in lieu of chasing grants.

“My first goal is to give this support back to the producers in the form of better IPM programs because they provided the funding for this award,” he said. “Cotton is an important agricultural commodity for the state of Louisiana. It can produce considerable income.

“I truly admire some of the Southern gentlemen who were or are currently plantation owners because of their contributions and dedication to southern history. Mr. Hamilton was one of those Southern gentlemen.”

The Hamilton Chair is only the second chair in the AgCenter, said David Boethel, vice chancellor and director of research.

“The cotton industry showed commitment” in funding the chair, Boethel said. “With the AgCenter’s current financial situation, a chair allows us to attract and retain outstanding scientists – not just for today, but for a long, long time.”

Boethel said the Board of Regents’ requirements for endowed chairs require a national search to identify the person who will hold the chair. And after such a search, “Dr. Leonard was truly the outstanding candidate.” 

“When we went through the selection process, his name definitely rose to the top,” said Jess Barr, executive vice president of the Louisiana Cotton Association.

Leonard cited his family and the success of his students as major accomplishments in his life so far. He has a 20 percent appointment in the Department of Entomology and has been on the committees of 25 master’s and 25 doctoral students.

When he isn’t trying to solve insect pest issues in cotton, he participates in community activities. One pursuit was helping build a baseball field, which is named after him, at Franklin Parish High School so the team wouldn’t have to travel to a public park for practice.

“I did it for my son and his teammates,” Leonard said. “There was an obvious need. Fortunately, parents have continued to step up with the annual field and facility improvements to make this a great place for the team.”

Leonard’s wife, Thoy, is parish instructional technology specialist with the Franklin Parish School District. His son, Daniel, graduated from LSU in December, and his daughter, Katelyn, is a junior at Franklin Academy in Winnsboro.

“He was self-supporting at an early age,” Larry Rogers said of Leonard. “I don’t know of any young man who has established himself nationally and internationally at as young an age as Roger. He’s the come-to person in insect management in cotton."
(This article was published in the winter 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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