By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

peters-e-k-2010-80PULLMAN, Wash. – I’m quite a dinosaur. I get some of my news the old fashioned way from hardcopy newspapers, and I still pay my bills with paper checks sent through the mail.

But even I own a smart phone. The ability to keep up with work-related email, as well as messages from friends and family, is one fantastic benefit of the modern cell phone. I do, indeed, value the technological revolution through which we all are living.

Hovering sensors

Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey are two research scientists at Washington State University who are doing work in dusty wheat fields that is being transformed by technology.

pumphrey-80“It used to be that weighing the bag (of grain) was the only way we had to evaluate a variety of wheat,” Pumphrey said to me. “Yield is still the bottom line, but technology gives us tools for earlier identification of what will be fruitful lines of wheat.”

Some of the technology is pretty cool. The breeders use small, unmanned, remote-control helicopters to look at crops in the field. Special cameras on board record more than the human eye can perceive.

Photosynthesis, water use, more

carter-80“The cameras tell us information about photosynthesis and the water use of the plants,” Carter said. “They can even take the temperature of the plants.”

The devices can measure small changes.

“It’s best for us to work on sunny days with little wind,” Pumphrey said. “If a cloud comes over the sun, the plants change how they are photosynthesizing and that’s picked up by our sensors.”

In addition to sending aerial devices over fields of wheat, the pair of researchers uses a special GPS-guided tractor mounted with a variety of high-tech sensors.

“Instruments that are too bulky for the helicopters are on the tractor,” Pumphrey said.

Diverse colleagues, common goals

Their work requires interaction with a variety of specialists. Engineers, for example, are an important resource for the wheat breeders.

“There’s a lot of diversity in our work,” Carter said. “We have to do a little bit of everything, from studying diseases in the wheat, to soil properties, to engineering. So, for example, we might pull in an engineer to help us develop a particular sensor, then apply that to what’s growing in the field.”

Pumphrey grew up in the No. 1 wheat-producing county in Oklahoma. As a young kid, he didn’t know you could grow anything but wheat. He later got into his line of work for pretty idealistic reasons.

“I had a love of plants, but I also wanted to do good. In this field, we work to produce more food using fewer resources and to help the farmers have lower environmental impact,” Pumphrey said. “We really affect many lives.”

If you like to eat bread and other foodstuffs made from wheat, you’ve got to wish modern wheat breeders well as they embrace technology to improve varieties of wheat on which farmers – and the rest of us – depend.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.