Throughout 2021, the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Wheat Letter is featuring the many stories of the people, processes and passions that go into producing and delivering high-quality U.S. wheat to the world. Our focus will be on quality that starts with dedicated private and public wheat breeding programs, is fostered by hard-working farm families, is maintained by grain handlers and observed in hundreds of wholesome, nutritious wheat foods.
Scientists in U.S. wheat breeding programs work tirelessly to develop wheat varieties that meet the highest of standards, to meet our customers’ end-use needs and to help farm families thrive.
The journey of wheat to food tables around the world begins in public and commercial breeding programs. The process of continually improving varieties for farmers to grow, feed into the supply chain and, ultimately, end up in food products around the world.
Many such wheat breeding programs across the United States are necessary because of the widely varied production constraints and wheat classes adapted for different regions. Public university breeding programs have developed an estimated 65% of all U.S. wheat varieties across six distinct classes, funded in part by state wheat commissions, royalties from the sale of public varieties, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
In this post, Wheat Letter offers broad information about public university wheat breeding programs in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.
Federal Quality Lab
One major advantage to western U.S. public wheat breeding programs is its collaboration with scientists at the USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Laboratory (WWQL) near the Washington State University campus in Pullman, Wash.
The ARS laboratory works closely with public breeders, geneticists and pathologists in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California and Arizona to evaluate the milling and baking quality characteristics of wheat selections produced each crop year. Researchers there are trying to better understand the fundamental nature of end-use functionality. In addition, Dr. Kimberly Garland-Campbell, Research Geneticist with ARS, focuses on club wheat research for the Pacific Northwest states.
Many overseas buyers of U.S. wheat have learned firsthand about the work of both institutions during trade team visits sponsored by U.S. Wheat Associates (USW).
University of Idaho
Farmers grow soft white (SW), hard red winter (HRW), hard red spring (HRS), durum and hard white (HW) wheat in Idaho’s diverse agricultural environment with and without irrigation. And wheat breeding research at the University of Idaho (UI) has contributed many of the most desirable wheat varieties adapted to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest (PNW), with excellent end-use quality.
IU Wheat Breeder Dr. Jianli Chen recently told the Idaho Wheat Commission (IWC) that IU wheat varieties help make wheat from Idaho and other PNW states more competitive in the world market. The IWC invests farmer checkoff funds in the ISU wheat breeding program.
Dr. Chen said a spring SW variety called UI Cookie and a HW variety called UI Jade Bronze from her program are showing promise for high yields and excellent functional milling and baking qualities. IWC research investment helped fund Dr. Chen’s UI Cookie development.
In addition, Dr. Chen and her UI colleagues are using genetic tools that speed up the wheat breeding process and identify traits in lines that can be crossed to make varieties more productive while using less fertilizer and water.
The UI Foundation Seed Program maintains approximately 120 UI-produced varieties of wheat and other crops and UI research and extension center staff produce seed on university-owned owned farms. Finally, the Idaho Crop Improvement Association inspects seed fields for purity before seed can be sold to farmers. UI seed sales revenue is also invested back into the UI Foundation Seed program.
Washington State University
Washington State University (WSU) and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant breeding programs focus on developing cultivars with high yield potential, excellent end-use quality, and resistance to stress. These programs have a successful record releasing new SW, Club, HRS and HRW wheat varieties that Pacific Northwest farmers want to plant.
A Washington Grain Commission (WGC) video highlights these programs.
WSU Wheat Breeders
Dr. Arron Carter holds the Orville A. Vogel Endowed Chair in Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU. In collaboration with colleagues and Washington farmers, Dr. Carter says the program identifies genetic solutions to winter wheat varietal development and production problems. That, in turn, enhances the sustainability of the Washington wheat industry
One of those colleagues is Dr. Michael Pumphrey, who holds the O.A. Vogel Endowed Chair in Spring Wheat Breeding and Genetics. As with Dr. Carter, Dr. Pumphrey tries to address plant disease resistance and grain quality in his breeding work.
The WSU Extension Cereal Variety Testing Program gives growers and the agribusiness industry comprehensive information on winter and spring wheat adaptation and performance across the different climatic regions of eastern Washington. The program also offers WSU and USDA-ARS wheat breeding programs a uniform testing and evaluation program for preliminary wheat lines to help develop variety release recommendations to the Washington Agricultural Research Center.
A Note on Preferred Varieties
As trusted suppliers to domestic and overseas customers, organizations that represent PNW wheat farmers have long emphasized milling and baking quality improvement. The Washington Grain Commission was the first organization to collect wheat quality information and use the data to rate individual varieties on how they meet end-user quality standards. WGC provided the ratings to farmers in an annual Preferred Wheat Variety publication. Today, WGC, the Idaho Wheat Commission and the Oregon Wheat Commission publish one preferred variety booklet.
Oregon State University
Wheat breeding at Oregon State University (OSU) focuses on quality traits, resistance to diseases, and adaptability to a wide range of growing environments throughout Oregon. Those priorities are seen in the two scientists who lead the program: Professor Robert Zemetra, Wheat Breeder, and Professor Andrew Ross, Milling and Baking Science.
The program reports that it tests more than 40,000 genetically distinct lines specifically for the Pacific Northwest. With wheat breeding, quality testing, and extension, the program works to meet the needs of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. OSU wheat varieties are widely planted in Oregon and neighboring Washington state as they are well adapted to those growing environments.
Making an Impact
In this video produced by OSU, Dr. Zemetra and Dr. Ross talk about how their work on bread wheat affects the baking and farming communities in Oregon. Overseas buyers sourcing wheat from the Pacific Northwest know there is a positive impact in their markets, too.
Oregon Wheat Commission (OWC) funding supports this team, including other colleagues, specifically to “develop new SW, HW, HRW and winter club wheat cultivars with superior end-use quality” adapted to Oregon’s growing regions that also increase economic returns to growers.
Additional funding for the program comes from the OSU Agricultural Research Foundation, commercial companies and royalties from the many wheat and cereal crop varieties it has developed.
University of California Davis
For more than 100 years, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has played a major role in developing and managing many of the plant commodities grown in California, including soft white, hard red, hard white and Desert Durum® wheat classes.
Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky leads the UC Davis Wheat Breeding Program and Molecular Genetics laboratory. An internationally recognized wheat breeder, Dr. Dubcovsky has, for the last 20 years, led a large consortium of U.S. public breeding programs aimed at improving breeding technologies and train new breeders. In addition, he has been a lead researcher in projects to improve wheat and barley water and fertilizer use and completed a project in 2014 aimed at “Improving California Wheat Quality and Nutritional Value.” In 2020, his UC Davis program received a grant to improve wheat’s dietary fiber content.
Fall-Seeded Spring Wheats
Producing wheat in a mild winter climate, farmers seed California wheat varieties in the fall and harvest the next summer. However, the varieties are genetically classified as spring wheat. The UC Davis program has developed wheat varieties with high water absorption, high viscosity and, based on the classification above, high stability and gluten strength. Dr. Dubcovsky’s program also focuses on developing wheat varieties with improved nutritional values.
Improved Quality and Demand
Together with UC Davis, the California Wheat Commission (CWC) also publishes an annual Preferred Variety List based on bread baking qualities. CWC recommends farmers to select varieties from the preferred class will help to increase the overall quality and desirability of California wheat.
A Note on Desert Durum®
The term Desert Durum® is a certification mark issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that describes “…at least 90% wheat grain produced under irrigation in the desert valleys and lowlands of Arizona or California.” The mark is jointly owned by the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council and the California Wheat Commission. Only parties granted permission by the owner(s) can describe grain as Desert Durum®.
Most of the Desert Durum® varieties now grown in the desert southwest are products of breeding programs conducted by both private firms and the public breeding program at UC Davis.
Arizona’s annual wheat crop consists mostly of durum varieties developed by private breeding programs that originated the modern Desert Durum® varieties over three decades ago. They continue their efforts today.
Most of California’s Desert Durum® production consists of varieties from the UC Davis breeding program that has been led by Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky for many years. These varieties include genes for increased grain protein and improved pasta color and gluten strength.
Desert Durum® is generally available to domestic and export markets as “identity preserved” grain by specific variety, which allows customers to acquire grain possessing quality traits that meet their specific needs. The identity preserved system allows customers to contract varieties and volumes with grain merchandisers who sell certified seed to experienced growers who maintain varietal identity throughout the planting, growing, harvesting, and delivery processes. Grain merchandisers then store the grain by variety and may ship on the customers’ preferred schedules.
Read about other U.S. wheat public breeding programs:
Read about other U.S. wheat commercial breeding programs:
Stories covering additional programs will be published soon.