Published on 04/25/18

Acclaimed pecan breeder Darrell Sparks named UGA Inventor of the Year

By Clint Thompson

Darrell Sparks’ legacy at the University of Georgia spans more than 50 years and includes the release of eight patented pecan cultivars and research focused on the development of new and improved pecan varieties. For his contributions to Georgia’s pecan industry, Sparks is the 2018 recipient of the university’s Inventor of the Year Award.

A scientist in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) Department of Horticulture, Sparks received the award on April 19 during the 39th annual UGA Research Awards banquet held on the university’s main campus in Athens, Georgia.

“It was unexpected, that’s for sure. It’s great that you can get an award for something that you enjoy doing,” Sparks said.

Sparks is responsible for the release of Byrd,’ Cunard,’ ‘Morrill,’ ‘Treadwell,’ ‘Tom,’ ‘Huffman,’ ‘Tanner’ and ‘Whiddon’ pecan cultivars. All patented cultivars released in the U.S. in the last 10 years, these cultivars helped to make Georgia No. 1 in pecan production nationwide.

“As the nation’s top pecan-producing state, a large part of that success can be attributed to research by Dr. Sparks. He is the world authority on pecan management and physiology, and his development of new varieties keeps pecans as one of Georgia’s most important commodities,” said Allen Moore, CAES Associate Dean for Research. “He is a remarkably productive and prolific scientist whose research has real impact.”

Sparks joined the UGA horticulture department in 1965, a time when pecans were not a high-value crop. Through his research on the physiology of pecans — leaf retention, pecan nutrition and nutrient deficiencies — Sparks revitalized the pecan industry and sparked the start of new orchards across the country.

“Pecan trees are a very long-lived crop and will often outlive the grower that planted them. The impact of the new cultivars released by Dr. Sparks will last for many decades, and they will increase the productivity and profitability of new pecan orchards across the United States,” said Patrick Conner, CAES pecan breeder based on the UGA Tifton campus. “In addition, several of his cultivars are being used as parents in my breeding program, and his work will improve future generations of pecan cultivars as well.”

Sparks has also received the Outstanding Researcher Award from the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) and was elected as a Fellow by the ASHS. CAES awarded Sparks the D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Research in 2001. His honors also include the 1996 Most Outstanding Fruit and Nut Crop Publication Award from the ASHS.

In addition to breeding new pecan varieties, he also developed a model for predicting Georgia pecan production. The model identifies different factors that influence pecan production and nut quality, which results in improved orchard management for pecan growers.

Conner took over as the university’s pecan breeder in 1998. Sparks, who celebrated his 80th birthday on April 14, hopes to release his final pecan cultivar later this year.

Clint Thompson is an agriculture writer based in Tifton, Georgia.

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