By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

This week, Wageningan University —one of the top agricultural universities in the world, located in the Netherlands —issued a press release about their research on using gene editing to produce “gluten safe” wheat so that individuals with Celiac disease can enjoy wheat products. It is possible to remove all gluten genes from wheat; however, this process has a negative impact on baking quality and the wheat-food product. Instead, Wageningan PhD candidate Aurélie Jouanin is researching the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to modify specific wheat genes to produce wheat with safe gluten that does not cause an allergic reaction.

This is only one of many exciting research projects around the world using plant breeding innovation. These new technologies allow for precise changes to plant DNA to help address thorny challenges—consumer health, environmental stressors and disease pressures, among others. And as scientists find innovative ways to address complex issues, outdated and overly burdensome regulations struggle to catch up.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recognizes that advanced technology is imperative to helping farmers adapt to changing and challenging growing environments. Traditional breeding often takes too long and produces results that are too random to consistently keep up with evolving diseases and pests, and it has very little hope of doing something at the same scale as the potential of Jouanin’s research.

However, new technology also needs to be paired with consumer engagement and smart trade decisions. Recognizing this, the USW and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) adopted a joint statement on plant breeding innovation policy.

This statement distinguishes the importance of new technology in breeding for everyone along the supply chain, from farmers to international customers to consumers. It reaffirms our support of continued research; of fair, science-based regulation where necessary; and of the U.S. and foreign governments taking steps to ensure open trade flows. The statement also argues that plant breeding innovations should be clearly differentiated from traditional biotechnology in regulatory discussions, with internationally harmonized definitions and scientific standards.

Government regulations often move slowly. However, in this case, that slow movement can have serious repercussions on the agricultural industry and on consumers who could benefit from new technology. With this new policy statement, USW sends a clear message of support for science-based decision making and the opportunities that plant breeding innovation present for wheat.


The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) have jointly developed “Innovature,” a new resource to encourage a thoughtful dialogue around innovation in food and agriculture and the tangible benefits for our planet, our health and our food.


Through its website, social media and other activities, “Innovature” aims to foster productive conversations between key thought leaders and the public and cultivate broad partnerships that can help realize the full, positive potential of evolving breeding methods like gene editing.


U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) supports finding new ways to improve wheat quality and increase production with less impact on the environment. New research in biotechnology and plant breeding innovations, and a deepening understanding of DNA, will help make this possible. Scientists can now make far more precise genetic changes to plants and animals to help address some of society’s most urgent challenges including climate change, sustainability, hunger and improving health and wellness.


USW welcomed the opportunity to have a place where wide-ranging, inclusive viewpoints about such innovations can be shared and discussed and we have collaborated on “Innovature” with the sponsoring organizations. We will continue to offer our support and recommendations moving forward.


The website features original content and news about plant and animal breeding methods and their beneficial effects. We encourage our stakeholders at home and around the world to explore and share the site and engage with “Innovature” on these social media platforms:


BIO and ASTA welcome story ideas and other submissions at To learn more about the two organizations, their missions and membership please visit and



“Innovature” is a new platform for engaging in discussion about plant and animal breeding methods and their beneficial effects on our plant, food and health. It includes the website above,, with original information and news, and an active social media agenda.


Photo Above: Copyright Oklahoma State University/Todd Johnson


By Steve Wirsching, USW Vice President and Director, West Coast Office

In Latin America, the holidays are filled with special wheat food traditions. Mexicans celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to the Christ child with Rosca de Reyes (Kings Cake Wreath), a ring-shaped sweet bread. In Peru, wheat consumption increases with Panettone bread sales. This holiday sweet bread can be traced back to the Italian bakers that made Peru their home many generations ago.

Special holiday breads are thriving despite a baking industry transitioning from artisan bakery shops to highly automated commercial operations. Such modern bakeries employ equipment that drives a need for ever more consistent, high-quality flour.

It was in this context that U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), with funding from member state wheat commissions and USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, assembled a team of leading wheat breeders to visit the top markets in Latin America. This Wheat Quality Improvement Team (WQIT) traveled to Mexico City, Mexico, Guatemala City, Guatemala, San Jose, Costa Rica and Lima, Peru, Dec. 8 to 18, 2018. Meetings with several food processing and flour milling industry representatives focused on U.S. wheat quality relative to the unique production challenges these customers face.

Wheat farmers, state wheat commissions, and public and private breeders understand that the end-use quality of U.S. wheat, as measured by end-use functionality, is more important than ever before in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace Such direct input from Latin American food processing companies to breeders is one of the ways USW is helping determine breeding targets, as well as helping develop selection criteria for new variety releases. The face-to-face interaction with breeders in this activity helps overseas buyers understand that U.S. wheat quality is no accident but is, rather, the product of investment from farmers and years of scientific work.

Customers shared several preferred characteristics from U.S. wheat including consistent quality from shipment to shipment, increased dough strength and water absorption, and lower polyphenol oxidase (PPO) to prevent color change. These messages and more will be relayed to state wheat commissions at upcoming Wheat Quality Council meetings in Portland, Ore., and Kansas City, Mo.

Market development programs like this Wheat Quality Improvement Team help ensure that Latin American sweet breeds like the Rosca de Reyes and Panettone continue to be a holiday tradition — made with high-quality wheat from the United States.

Participating Wheat Breeders 

The WQIT to Latin America in December included:

  • Guorong Zhang, Leader, Kansas State wheat breeding program and Associate Professor at Kansas State University;
  • Brett Carver, Wheat Genetics Chair in Agriculture, Oklahoma State University;
  • Mike Giroux, Co-director of the Montana State Wheat Quality Laboratory and leader of the Montana State durum breeding program;
  • Jackie Rudd, Leader of the hard winter wheat breeding program for the High Plains and Rolling Plains of Texas;
  • Arron Carter, Director of the winter wheat breeding and genetics program at Washington State University;
  • Mr. Steve Wirsching, USW Vice President and Director, West Coast Office.

The team and USW Staff in front of the Presedente Hotel in Mexico City.


On Oct. 30, 2018, an International Statement on “Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology” was released at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Committee on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. That statement reiterates an international commitment to the fair, science-based treatment of evolving plant breeding methods, like gene editing, around the world. To date, Argentina, which led this effort, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, the United States, Uruguay, Vietnam and the Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States have endorsed the statement.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently joined 17 other national organizations representing agriculture and science communities in commending the governments that initiated and supported the statement “as a positive step toward improved international coordination. This is crucial to the ability of breeders to utilize new and innovative methods, to increasing choice for farmers and to maintaining trade in agricultural products.”

The groups believe the statement appropriately recognizes that “precision biotechnology products have the potential to play a critical role in addressing the challenges facing agricultural production…” and that “cooperative work by governments to minimize unnecessary barriers to trade related to the regulatory oversight of products of precision biotechnology, including the exploration of opportunities for regulatory and policy alignment, should be pursued where possible.”

“This is a strong showing of support by governments around the world in recognition of the necessity of continued evolution in plant breeding, and the critical role that it will play in ensuring a more sustainable and secure global food production system,” said American Seed Trade Association President & CEO Andrew LaVigne.

View the full statement and list of signing organizations here.

USW supports finding new ways to improve wheat quality and increase production with less impact on the environment. New research in biotechnology and plant breeding innovation, including gene editing, will help make this possible. To learn more, visit our website at


Kansas State University wheat geneticist and pathologist Eduard Akhunov works recently in the university’s greenhouse. K-State researchers and colleagues from two U.S. universities have identified close to 1 million markers in the genome of 2400 wheat lines, work that will lead to faster and more efficient improvements in wheat varieties.


By Haley Ahlers, Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics Project Manager. Reprinted with permission from Kansas Wheat. See the original article here.

Kansas State University scientists, in collaboration with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), published in the international journal Science on August 16, 2018, a detailed description of the complete genome of bread wheat, the world’s most widely-cultivated crop. This work will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

The research article-authored by more than 200 scientists from 73 research institutions in 20 countries- presents the reference genome of the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring. The DNA sequence ordered along the 21 wheat chromosomes is the highest quality genome sequence produced to date for wheat. It is the result of 13 years of collaborative international research and the generous support of the National Science Foundation, Kansas farmers and many others.

“It is a dream come true for Kansas wheat farmers, who were the first to invest in the wheat genome sequencing project and pivotal in rallying U.S. wheat farmers in support of the wheat genome sequencing project,” said Dr. Bikram Gill, distinguished professor at Kansas State University who organized the first National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored workshop planning meeting on wheat genome sequencing in Washington, D.C., in 2003.

A key crop for food security, wheat is the staple food of more than a third of the global human population and accounts for almost 20 percent of the total calories consumed by humans worldwide, more than any other single food source. It also serves as an important source of vitamins and minerals.

Kansas farmers grow an average of 340 million bushels of wheat each year, but acres planted to wheat have dropped dramatically over the past decade, from 10 million acres to fewer than 8 million. To meet future demands of a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050, wheat productivity needs to increase by 1.6 percent each year. In order to preserve biodiversity, water and nutrient resources, the majority of this increase has to be achieved via crop and trait improvement on land currently cultivated, rather than committing new land to cultivation. In order for farmers to dedicate these precious resources to wheat production rather than production of other crops, wheat farming must become profitable.

With the reference genome sequence now completed, breeders have at their fingertips new tools to address global challenges. They will be able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, resistance to fungal diseases and tolerance to physical stress-and produce hardier wheat varieties.

“Completion of the sequence is a landmark event that will serve as a critical foundation for future wheat improvement,” said Dr. Allan Fritz, Kansas State University professor and wheat breeder. “It is the key to allowing efficient, real-time integration of relevant genetics, making the selection process more efficient-it’s a turbocharger for wheat breeding!”

It is expected that the availability of a high-quality reference genome sequence will boost wheat improvement over the next decades, with benefits similar to those observed with maize and rice after their reference sequences were produced.

“Kansas wheat farmers have been supporting the wheat genome sequencing efforts through the Kansas Wheat Commission’s wheat assessment since the establishment of the IWGSC in 2005, with a cumulative amount of nearly a quarter of a million dollars,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer for Kansas Wheat. “The sequence of the bread wheat genome has already had a positive effect on wheat improvement, which not only affects the science behind wheat breeding, but has a long-lasting positive outcome in regard to wheat producer productivity, profitability and, ultimately, livelihoods.”

Sequencing the bread wheat genome was long considered an impossible task, due to its enormous size – five times larger than the human genome-and complexity-bread wheat has three sub-genomes and more than 85% of the genome is composed of repeated elements.

“It is exciting to be a part of this landmark achievement,” said Dr. Jesse Poland, associate professor at Kansas State University and director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center and the USAID Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics. “This international effort, toward something that was once deemed impossible, will have tremendous impact on wheat in Kansas, and the world.”

The impact of the wheat reference sequence has already been significant in the scientific community, as exemplified by the publication on the same date of six additional publications describing and using the reference sequence resource, one appearing in the same issue of Science, one in Science Advances and four in Genome Biology. In addition, more than 100 publications crediting the reference sequence have been published since the resource was made available to the scientific community in January 2017.  “We are extensively using the new reference sequence for more informed molecular breeding” commented Poland.  “It is really having a big impact.”

In addition to the sequence of the 21 chromosomes, the Science article also presents the precise location of 107,891 genes and of more than 4 million molecular markers, as well as sequence information between the genes and markers containing the regulatory elements influencing the expression of genes.

The IWGSC achieved this result by combining the resources it generated over the last 13 years using classic physical mapping methods and the most recent DNA sequencing technologies; the sequence data were assembled and ordered along the 21 chromosomes using highly efficient algorithms, and genes were identified with dedicated software programs.

All IWGSC reference sequence resources are publicly available at the IWGSC data repository at URGI-INRA Versailles and at other international scientific databases such as GrainGenes and Ensembl Plants.

The Science article is entitled “Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome” and can be read here.

About the IWGSC

The IWGSC, with 2,400 members in 68 countries, is an international, collaborative consortium, established in 2005 by a group of wheat growers, plant scientists, and public and private breeders. The goal of the IWGSC is to make a high-quality genome sequence of bread wheat publicly available, in order to lay a foundation for basic research that will enable breeders to develop improved varieties. The IWGSC is a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.


By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy


This week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on the regulatory status of plants developed through mutagenesis (which includes many modern plant breeding innovations). They determined that these technologies do fall under the jurisdiction of EU laws regarding GMOs. And with that, they landed a serious blow to the future of agricultural innovation.


Earlier this year, an advocate general of the ECJ wrote an opinion stating that gene-editing techniques that did not result in foreign DNA in the final product should not be considered GMOs under EU GM legislation. This ruling created hope that regulations on promising new technology like CRISPR-Cas9 would not be overly burdensome. Those hopes were dashed by this new ruling though.


This ruling, based solely on the process used to develop a plant and ignoring the safety and effectiveness of the plant itself, is shortsighted and irresponsible. A ruling like this will have a chilling effect on European plant breeding efforts, and by extension will have negative economic and environmental consequences for the continent. Those effects will likely trickle to other plant breeding programs around the world because if a plant cannot get into Europe easily, then all countries that export to the EU will be hesitant to adopt new technology.  Additionally, the EU is often used as a benchmark for other countries considering their own regulations on biotechnology and plant breeding, so this interpretation may be adopted more widely.


The EU, as a group of developed countries, can weather those negative effects of restrictive regulation. But this is one more stumbling block to food security that other parts of the world cannot afford. The privilege to limit food options based on non-scientific consumer fear is one that the EU and other developed countries take for granted. But these technologies can have a massive impact on production and nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. With that in mind, rather than constraining new research, we should be supporting these efforts as much as possible. And one crucial avenue of support is providing science-based regulations that do not impede trade flows. As global economic leaders, this is not an option; it is a responsibility.


For more information, visit:


By Jennifer Latzke, High Plains Journal, May 22, 2018, Excerpts Reprinted with Permission

Editor’s Note: This article covers innovative ways wheat farmer organizations and public universities in several Plains states are investing to produce more wheat with improvements for farmers and end users in ways that are most sustainable.

The reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture can feel bleak. This year farmers are projected to plant the second lowest total wheat acreage on record for the U.S. since 1919 — 47.3 million acres.

Winter wheat acres for 2018 are at the second lowest acreage since 1909, at 32.7 million acres. From new branding efforts, to new structures, to innovative research many scientists and industry professionals across the High Plains are working to ensure that the breadbasket of the world stays right here.

Farmers growing hard white (HW) winter wheat have dealt with a “Catch-22” situation for years. To grow demand, they must grow more white wheat. But to grow the quantities to meet demand, they must have an established market for the wheat that makes segregation worth the price.

Kansas Wheat is rolling out a branding campaign, “High Plains Platinum,” that aims to capture the added value of hard white wheat while still growing production.

Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations with Kansas Wheat, explained that Platinum is a project developed with a grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture to establish and promote the high quality of hard white winter wheat grown in Kansas. Farmers plant Platinum-identified hard white winter wheat varieties that have excellent quality characteristics that millers and bakers demand. At harvest, the farmer takes his Platinum white wheat grain to a participating elevator that can then market that wheat to buyers as meeting the standards established by the program.

“It’s an effort to differentiate by establishing a market for hard white wheat through branding,” Harries said … In this case, Platinum white wheat must have: a minimum 12 percent protein; a minimum 60-pound test weight; less than 11.5 percent moisture; and contain less than 2 percent other classes of wheat. However, because of grain inspection rules a label or certificate can’t be attached to white wheat coming from a producer’s field.

With this attempt to establish a level of quality under the Platinum name, the hope is farmers and elevators can fully capture the value of their crop. And if this proves successful, the hope is neighboring states can come on board under the Platinum umbrella too.

Oklahoma Builds Capacity. In November 2017, [Oklahoma Foundation Seed Stocks] (OFSS) cut the ribbon on its new 20,000-square-foot facility at the Oklahoma State University Agronomy Research Station in Stillwater … to support the growing demand for certified seed from the public breeding program at Oklahoma State University.

Jeff Wright, coordinator of production and operations at OFSS, said this facility’s improved storage space means they can keep larger numbers of seed available for seedsmen to increase earlier in the variety release process.

“We are trying to have a larger amount of seed available so that when we do release a variety, it can get to the farmer at the end certified level quicker,” Wright said …

Currently, the Oklahoma Wheat Commission estimates that half of all the state’s wheat acres are planted with OSU-bred varieties. Sales revenue from those varieties goes back to OFSS to support future wheat breeding and research efforts. OFSS also licenses certain wheat varieties to Oklahoma Genetics, Inc.

Colorado Releases Grassy Weed Control. Grassy weed control in wheat acres is a challenge to growing high quality grain the market demands. But a new discovery out of Colorado State University is poised to revolutionize the market.

CoAXium is a wheat production system using the genetic trait, AXigen, identified through traditional wheat breeding methods at Colorado State University. Wheat varieties with the AXigen gene are immune to … a Group 1 ACCase inhibiting herbicide that controls grassy weeds, such as brome, feral rye, jointed goatgrass and wild oats.

Brad Erker is the new executive director for the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation. The CWRF takes ownership of CSU wheat varieties, and provides money to the wheat breeding program from royalties charged on those varieties …

“If we have a successful launch of a trait from a public institution like this, it shows that trait development at CSU is fruitful,” he said. “It could be the start of more patentable traits, and proving we can tackle the big problems wheat farmers face.”

Texas Drones Gather Data … Jackie Rudd, Texas A&M University wheat breeder, explained how his breeding program is utilizing new technology to better capture and crunch data.

“We’ve used a lot of sensor type data collecting rigs…” he said. “But this year we jumped in and we are using a drone to fly over plots and collect data.” Texas A&M invested in a data processing system that … tabulates that data and in a day’s time Rudd has at his fingertips plot by plot data and can make breeding decisions.

“We are increasing our efficiency and doing more with the resources we do have. We can reduce the time frame new varieties come out, and provide growers more and better material.”

And, the drone flyovers can happen on a daily basis, allowing Rudd to see how the plant changes day by day according to weather and other stressors. This year alone he’s been able to see daily changes to moisture on the dryland plots that he’s never been able to capture and quantify before. That makes a big difference when you’re trying to breed the next wheat variety that will perform well in harsh environmental conditions.

Nebraska Uses Genetic Markers for Improvement. Data is the key to finding the next great wheat variety. Today, with the sequencing of the wheat genome, Stephen Baenziger, wheat breeder for the University of Nebraska, can use genetic markers along with estimated breeding values to better select what lines to advance in his purebred and hybrid wheat variety trials.

“So, let’s say you go to a field and a couple of lines look similar, but you can predict one will work better,” Baenziger said. “Phenotypic data augmented with genotypic data shows us which is better.” It’s evaluating by sight, but also with genetic information found from DNA sequencing.

In 2016, … genomic data saved six years of wheat breeding and countless dollars invested. Ultimately, this tool means his program can be more efficient and provide a quicker return on investment for wheat growers …

“We are committed to the economic sustainability of the American farmer,” Baenziger said. “We’re going to try to get high quality and profitable wheat and save farmers money while they produce more.”


By Steve Mercer, USW Vice President of Communications

Several colleagues from U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) had a great experience on May 16 on a visit to Bayer Corporation’s main North American wheat breeding laboratory and nursery near Lincoln, Neb. They had a true look at the future, one that includes a more stable supply of high quality wheat for millers and wheat food processors around the world.

Bayer has made a substantial commitment to overcoming an age-old wheat breeding challenge: to develop and commercialize hybrid wheat.

The process of producing hybrid plant seeds can be simply described. Two distinct varieties of the same plant, each with unique characteristics are cross-bred. One plant has sterile female flowers, the other produces pollen and the fertilized plant produces a new, unique offspring.

But with a complex plant like wheat with three whole genomes in each cell and often 6 copies of each gene, that process is not easy. In fact, it was described as downright complex. Some of the scientists USW met with have worked toward hybrid wheat for more than 10 years. They say the work requires collaboration with a wide range of scientific disciplines; a true team effort. And the team at Bayer certainly represent that. They are focused on the hybrid goal, their comradery is quite evident and they are very excited about the potential of the work. The team includes experienced winter and spring wheat breeders, as well as plant pathologists who are testing new varieties for resistance to diseases like Fusarium head blight, or scab. Perhaps most important for the world’s U.S. wheat buyers, this team includes wheat quality specialists who are determining if new hybrid varieties meet or exceed grade and functional milling, baking and processing standards for the wheat class. If a new line does not meet or exceed standards, it is rejected.

Bayer and other public and private breeders are working toward hybrid lines for several reasons. Hybrid wheat demonstrates a productive yield increase. This is needed by farmers, especially small holder farmers, around the world to offset the currently limited profitability of growing single line wheat varieties. It is also needed to continue meeting record setting use of wheat by a growing global population. They see much more stable production levels across a variety of growing conditions with hybrid wheat. Hybridization also allows breeders to “stack” native and non-GM traits into wheat seed more precisely and efficiently than other breeding methods.

There is much work to be done, especially to screen and refine the new lines being produced, and it will be many years before hybrid wheat seeds are fully ready for farmers’ fields. However, the USW colleagues saw why the Bayer team is so enthusiastic about their work in the field trial plots around the Nebraska facility. What was described as a “radical transformation” of the tools available to conduct this complex research is accelerating the ability to bring new wheat lines to market. Most encouraging was the company’s willingness to incorporate into their work USW’s knowledge of what overseas millers, bakers and wheat food processors need to improve the quality of and demand for their end products.

USW wants to thank not only the Bayer team for their transparency and interest in our work with the world’s wheat buyers and users, but also wheat breeders around the world, who are working day and night to improve this staple crop for an increasingly hungry world.


By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

Last week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published a legal opinion from its Advocate General that gene editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 should not be included in the EU’s regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While the ECJ is not required to follow this legal opinion, in practice they often do. The ECJ will rule on the issue in the coming months.

This news is important because when the regulatory status of plant breeding innovations that are different from biotechnology is uncertain, scientists have trouble moving forward with new trait development. While transgenic biotechnology (GM or GMO) involves inserting foreign DNA into the target plant, these new techniques allow for gene deletion or modification without the presence of foreign DNA.

Innovation is an important evolution in the plant breeding process in that it involves precise changes in a plant’s genome in a controlled manner. Over-regulation of these technologies could stifle scientific advancements that the agricultural community needs to continually improve food supply in a sustainable way. If these advanced breeding methods were automatically regulated as GMOs, this would make it nearly impossible for non-commercial researchers and small companies to use them to develop new varieties for the market.

For wheat, the effect of not having commercialized advanced breeding traits can be seen in the concerning decline in both planted area compared to other crops and in research funding. Wheat yields have not increased at the same rate as other crops, and the potential for quality improvements has not been realized.

Additionally, these new breeding innovations would allow scientists to develop traits that are consumer-facing, with the potential to improve everything from milling quality to nutrition and health benefits that would be good for the entire supply chain.

Plant breeding innovations like gene editing have the potential to create new varieties of wheat that meet pressing needs both for farmers and customers, so it is important that any regulation of these new technologies be science-based.

To read more, visit


By Jack Money, Excerpted from “The Oklahoman” with Permission

This time of year, talk about wheat always focuses on the harvest. Researchers at Oklahoma State University and land grant universities across the country aren’t focused on what’s being cut this year, though. Instead, they’re thinking about the complex testing they never stop doing to develop the future wheat varieties farmers will want to grow.

Historically, they’ve geared their work to develop wheat varieties that can hold up in drought conditions and are resistant to insects or disease. They’ve also worked to develop dual purpose varieties that can be grazed early on and still grow quickly enough to provide a decent yield for harvest at the end of each year’s growing season.

Now, their focus is shifting somewhat to developing varieties that have the milling and baking qualities the … food industry desires. Achieving that, they say, will give farmers who grow those varieties the ability to make better money at harvest time — something they hope will encourage more farmers to invest a little more to plant certified seed in their fields.

Sales of that certified seed generates revenues to support further research, something that’s a key part of keeping Oklahoma’s wheat industry strong, those researchers say.

“We want to see farmers go more for growing the grains that millers are looking for, where they are sourcing wheat grown from a particular region of the state,” said David Marburger, a small grains extension specialist and assistant professor at Oklahoma State University (OSU). “In a world where we have a lot of wheat, we need ours to start floating toward the top,” Marburger noted. “Right now, people are buying our wheat at a discounted price and that costs our economy money.”

In nearly three dozen wheat fields across Oklahoma this year, plots of various wheat varieties were planted and then grown to maturity to both analyze the varieties’ performances and to give wheat farmers an opportunity to consider planting them. Marburger made his comments, for example, at a test site on wheat farmer [and past USW Chairman] Don Schieber’s land near Ponca City as he and other researchers discussed the strengths, weaknesses and genetic origins of more than a dozen wheat varieties grown at the site.

The breeding program is overseen by Brett Carver, who joined OSU in 1985 to begin a research and teaching career in quantitative genetics and wheat development. In 1998, he assumed leadership of the university’s wheat improvement team, becoming just the third person to lead the group since the program began in the mid­ 1940s.

Before that, farmers used to develop new varieties of wheat on their own, and early on in the university’s program, researchers pollinated two kinds of wheat just to see what might result. Later, that evolved into crossing varieties of wheat to create a new variety containing positive characteristics from both.

Now, genetics are playing a bigger role. Carver’s wheat improvement team, for example, includes three molecular geneticists, an entomologist, a plant pathologist and other specialized researchers.

“The program I direct is all about developing the lines that become varieties. It is a long, complicated process and one that you just don’t want to start and stop. You have to keep it going,” Carver said.

The process to develop a new hybrid starts, he said, with his improvement team and its technicians working in greenhouses to cross pollinate varieties of wheat to get something new.

“You have to go against the grain, both literally and figuratively, because you have to force it to do that,” Carver said. That requires the removal of the male parts of the plant on one type of wheat, and then fertilizing the plant with pollen from another. And it all has to be done by the hands of researchers and their technicians, “like bees moving pollen from one plant to the other,” Carver said.

The team seeks to make more than 1,000 cross combinations each year, then evaluates mature plants to see if they are worth further research. If one is worthy, the team spends another five to six years to get the plant ready for field tests, and those take anywhere from three to as many as six years to complete. On average, OSU’s team spends 11 years creating and testing a new variety, Carver said.

“When it’s released (made commercially available to wheat growers), it’s like putting out a song and making it available for public use, but it is still going to be researched and evaluated,” Carver said.

Mark Hodges, executive director of Oklahoma Genetics Inc., handles the business side of wheat research in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Genetics, Inc. is an education nonprofit that promotes the stewardship and publicizes and markets the use of certified varieties of wheat. It also promotes educational programs and scientific research for the benefit of crop producers and markets, and supports plant breeding programs designed to meet current and future consumer demands.

Hodges said Oklahoma Genetics was formed in 2005. It also works with OSU and the Oklahoma Wheat Commission to educate farmers about wheat varieties produced by the university’s research, and to distribute certified seed from those varieties so they can be sold to farmers.

Seed sales generate royalty revenues that flow back to the university [and other organizations that may hold patents].

“That’s extremely important, because it supports the efforts of Dr. Carver and his team to develop new varieties,” Hodges said.

The university also receives money collected from wheat growers by grain operators at harvest for the Oklahoma Wheat Commission’s checkoff program, which captures 2 cents per bushel of harvested wheat.

Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, said the checkoff program [funding goes in part] to OSU to support its wheat research program.

“I think it really is impressive to see the commitment made by Dr. Carver and the wheat improvement team to make these programs happen,” Schulte said. “Without the support of the wheat commission, Oklahoma Genetics and the state’s wheat producers, it would be extremely hard to keep our public wheat research program at OSU viable, especially given Oklahoma’s current economy.”