Public wheat breeders continue 130‑year legacy of excellence

Composite featuring Carter and Pumphrey and black and white images of Vogel and Allan against a wheat field in the Palouse.
USDA scientists Orville Vogel and Robert Allan (lower right), developed "Gaines," a revolutionary semi-dwarf wheat with increased yield that made regional and global impacts. Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey (upper left) have continued that legacy of wheat variety development. Their wheats are among the top-grown cultivars in Washington. (photo composite by Jon Bickelhaupt, WSU News & Media Relations)

Breeders at Washington State University have kept Washington wheat competitive for well over a century from William Jasper Spillman’s first wheat variety in the early 1900s to the newest cultivars reaching farms this year.

“We are stewards who are here for the long haul,” said Professor Rich Koenig, chair of the WSU Grain Royalty Advisory Committee. “We’ve been entrusted with the future of the wheat industry.”

A legacy of innovation

The story of Washington wheat breeding began with Spillman, who arrived at the newly established Washington Agricultural College in 1894 as its sixth faculty member.

A WSU plant scientist, mathematician, and — at the time — the university’s undefeated football coach, Spillman sought to improve economic health for farmers by producing useful varieties of wheat. From crosses made in 1899, he showed how combinations of traits could make wheats that are better adapted to the soils and climates of Washington. Spillman went on to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he helped establish a forerunner of today’s Extension system, but not before breeding WSU’s first six club wheat releases.

“Traditionally, all the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest was club wheat,” said Kim Garland-Campbell, a Pullman-based USDA research geneticist and club wheat breeder.

For decades, fungal diseases like bunt and smut were among the biggest challenges for Northwest wheat growers. Agronomy and plant breeding instructor Edward Gaines, who joined the WSU program in 1912, bred more fungus-resistant hard winter and club wheats.

After Northwest growers urged Congress to fund a cooperative regional wheat improvement program in the late 1920s, one of Gaines’ former students, Orville Vogel, was hired as a USDA wheat breeder in 1931.

Vogel and Spillman were true renaissance men. They were engineers and economists as well as breeders.

Mike Pumphrey, spring wheat breeder
Washington State University

“Vogel and Spillman were true renaissance men,” said Mike Pumphrey, WSU’s spring wheat breeder. “They were engineers and economists as well as breeders.”

Since Vogel’s day, scientists from WSU and USDA have worked together to improve wheat quality, hardiness, and productivity. Their work is also supported by the Washington Grain Commission, which has funded wheat and barley breeding since the 1960s in a six-decade partnership.

Working with the grain commission and the USDA, WSU built the Plant Growth Facility, which has become a national model of cooperation. WSU’s two-cent royalty on new wheat varieties, established in 2012, helped pay for the facility and is now supporting breeding research, training, and infrastructure.

Bringing in valued traits

Before Vogel, most commercial wheat grew on tall, stately stalks. A USDA researcher at WSU Pullman for 42 years, he bred new semi-dwarf wheat plants that ploughed more energy into their heads of grain, boosting yields by as much as 25%. Vogel named his revolutionary variety “Gaines,” in honor of his teacher. It was released in 1961.

USDA scientist Robert Allan pictured in the lab in 1979.
Pictured in the lab in 1979, USDA scientist Robert Allan bred cereals for Washington’s diverse climates and pest and disease challenges.

Vogel’s former technician and WSU scientist Clarence Peterson worked with WSU plant pathologist George Bruehl to release Sprague, the first snow mold-resistant winter wheat, in 1972. Daws, released in 1976, was bred for winter hardiness, a trait maintained in current wheats. In 1988, Allan released Madsen and Hyak, the first strawbreaker foot rot-resistant varieties. Allan’s 1991 club wheat, Rely, included eight different types of stripe rust resistance.

Peterson’s 1990 cultivar Eltan and breeder Ed Donaldson’s 2000 release Finley are winter wheats with excellent emergence from deep sowing, another characteristic that WSU scientists have brought into modern varieties.

The chain continued as breeders Stephen Jones, Kim Kidwell, and Garland-Campbell took over management of breeding programs. Molecular geneticist Kulvinder Gill also released several varieties, including Curiosity CL+ and Mela CL+. Today, more than 50 named varieties have debuted since 1995 and counting.

Over the past decades, the WSU breeding program received multiple offers to merge with private companies. WSU has always chosen to maintain its independence, preserving the investment that the institution, the Washington Grain Commission, and growers have made throughout the past 120 years.

“Washington’s ability to export wheat is based on end-use quality, and that quality is phenomenal because growers hold WSU to a high standard,” Koenig said. “We can’t make solely short-term decisions. If we were to lose the rights to our germplasm, we’d lose control over quality and opportunities to breed for the specific needs of Washington.”

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