Dr Norm Thomson’s first job after graduation was a two-year period as an instructor in plant breeding at what became the Queensland Agricultural College. He then joined CSIRO in 1958 as an agronomist at the Kimberley Research Station on the Ord River. This was his first involvement with cotton, which had shown promise in earlier trials provided there was high use of DDT and other insecticides. His work consisted of pioneering studies of varieties, planting times, fertilisers, irrigation etc., to try and enable cotton to be grown in the Ord environment and be as productive as possible.
In 1963, Norm completed a Master of Science in Agriculture degree through the University of Western Australia and in 1964 went to the United States on a CSIRO postgraduate scholarship to study plant breeding.
When he returned to Australia in 1965 he started a cotton breeding program at the Kimberley research station. Up until then there had been no cotton breeding of any substance in Australia – only variety introductions and limited selections. By 1968 it was becoming clear that the Ord River scheme had a lot of problems related to insect management and Norm transferred to Canberra but continued to conduct experiments at Kimberley.
In 1969, at a conference held at Narrabri to discuss the future of cotton in northern New South Wales, Norm proposed that a multi-disciplinary cotton research team be established at Narrabri as it was then the major cotton growing centre in Australia. The idea was supported and the new CSIRO team commenced in 1972 with Norm as Officer-in-Charge. While it represented a new start Norm’s previous experience at the Ord, including his work on variability and response to selection within varieties (for which he was awarded a PhD from the University of New England), formed the basis for the subsequent research carried out at Narrabri.
The Heliothis plague of 1972-73 set their objectives of breeding towards resistance using such things as okra leaf, glabrous leaves and frego bracts which became a feature of the new varieties. At the same time they had to aim for a balance of high yield, quality and disease resistance along with insect resistance.
The end result of this work has been spectacular with the release of first the Sicot varieties in 1983 followed by the release of Siokra in 1985, the first widely grown Australian bred variety. In the four year period 1985-88 the Siokra and Sicala varieties provided $400 million worth of fibre produced, with more than 90% of that figure being export earnings.