Since 1968, Lee French has made a fascinating living by raising worms for agricultural research.
French, and his wife Joann, live near Lamberton, and raise about 10 different kinds of insects and ship them to major agricultural companies for research. The career choice has brought interesting travel for French.
“I started college in 1968, and right away, went to work at the Southwest Research and Outreach Station in Lamberton,” French said. “I started raising insects in my own barn in 1982. My wife Joann and I own the company. Joann has degrees in chemistry and biology, too.
“We have sold insects to ten different countries in Europe, South American, China, Japan, Latin American, Mexico and Canada,” the entomologist said.
Some of their most frequent customers, though, are major ag companies.
The Frenchs had been selling a dozen different kinds of insects until the 9/11 terrorist attack forced the government to clamp down on packages going certain places in the world. Between the government regulations and the fact that a couple of insects weren’t making them any money, the Frenchs dropped them from their line.
The most popular insect they raise is the Western corn rootworm.
“It’s a really destructive insect,” French said. “It feeds on the root of the plant and is productive no matter what we do.”
Apparently, seed companies tried producing GMO seed corn to cut down on the spread of corn rootworm, but the little critters adapted to become immune to it.
“It made them fight back that much harder,” French said. “Now they are more resistant to GMO corn than anything else.”
French said he is the world’s foremost expert on the corn rootworm and has worked with it since he started working with insects.
“The eggs of these insects are very small – smaller thank the head of a pin,” French said. “After counting them many times, we know there are 10,000 eggs per ml or CC of liquid.”
And, they are easily destroyed by temperature extremes. French said that when they ship them to research centers, the eggs are packed in insulated Styrofoam crates along with a hot water bottle in the winter and an ice pack in the summer. They also make use of guaranteed overnight delivery services, which precludes the U.S. Postal Service.
The Frenchs work with two types of corn rootworm; the Western diapausing corn rootworm and the Western non-diapausing corn rootworm.
French explained that the regular Western corn rootworm lays their eggs in the fall and the parents die, leaving the eggs to hibernate over the winter and hatch in the spring. The non-pausing variety have been gradually bread down to very short gestation period, which aids in research.
Page 2 of 2 - “We kept shortening the diapause until they were non-diapausing,” French said. “They will hatch in approximately 17 days after being laid.
“Essentially, the eggs don’t hibernate; that has helped to do research because we are in desperate need to do research with that insect,” he added.
In addition to the two Western corn cutworms, the Frenchs work with several other types of insects. They include Southern corn rootworm, Northern corn rootworm, European corn borer, black cutworm, tobacco budworm (which destroys cotton and other plants, as well) and the Fall Army worm, as well as the corn ear worm and the Colorado potato beetle.
In 1995, the United Nations hired French. He and a colleague traveled to flew to Europe to see what was going on.
“It was not a good place,” French said. “We had to go to Yugoslavia, where there was fighting going on. There were times when it was touch and go.”
Currently, French teaches college ag classes at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, his Alma Mater, and hopes to be hiring some of his students as interns in one of the agriculture-related companies.
French is also on the teaching staff of the University of Minnesota where he got his Masters in Entomology.
“I had nearly everything done for my PhD,” he added, but I got a job and they wouldn’t allow me to come back to finish it.”
SMSU called him to teach agronomy for last spring semester, and when it was over, they hired him to stay on. He has been instrumental in the cooperation between the U of M and SMSU ag programs.
“I hope I will be able to teach here for another five years, then I’ll be ready to retire,” he concluded. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get the program going so they can keep it going with a full head of steam.”