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Organic wheat breeding lands $680,000 grant

PULLMAN — Stephen Jones, a Washington State University wheat breeder, has received a $680,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop wheat varieties suited for low-input and organic agriculture systems.

The funding will underwrite continuing research in the nation’s only certified organic wheat breeding program.

Organic demand

“There’s a tremendous demand for organic wheat,” Jones said. “Organic food is one of the few facets of the food industry that continues to grow.”

While conventional has long held that the best wheat varieties will thrive in any production system, research in Jones’ program has disproved that notion.

Back in time

“There are different pressures in different systems,” Jones said. “If you are growing wheat in a low fertility that isn’t as protected as our traditional wheat is, there are genes and traits these plants need to compete better against weeds and they need to be more efficient in mining the soil for nutrients.”

For the past five years, Jones has been crossing modern wheat varieties with 163 varieties grown from the 1840’s to the 1950’s, a period of time preceding the use of nitrogen fertilizers and other inputs.

Jones hopes to develop varieties that will have good end-use qualities, compete successfully with weeds, efficiently use nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil and yield very well under no- and low-input and organic systems.

Nutrient value

“We know from Kevin Murphy’s work that newer wheat varieties have less beneficial micro-nutrients in them,” Jones said.  Murphy is a graduate student in Jones’ program.

Research on low-input and organic wheat could benefit conventional wheat growers as well.

Traditional farming

“Traditional farmers can hardly afford to buy nitrogen fertilizer and other inputs.

Improvements in plant utilization of soil nitrogen could help them as well as organic growers could help them cut their costs.”

Jones hopes to release the first organic wheat varieties from his program in the next five years.

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