By Dana Christel
Wheat may be one of the first crops that comes to mind when the state of Washington is mentioned. I can picture rolling hills covered in swaying waves of golden wheat seed heads. I think dry, I think wide open spaces, I think of a large combine making its way across the plains. Of course, the state as a whole represents a myriad of agricultural systems due to diverse geography and varied microclimates, so the image described probably best represents the eastern part of the state. However, even on the western parts of Washington there have been efforts to breed wheat that thrives in a different environment and meets the needs of farmers in that region. Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at the Mount Vernon Research Center, has been working to develop regionally relevant varieties of grains such as oats, barley and wheat since 2008. Also among those projects is developing a perennial grain and forage crop from wheat, a breeding effort that began back in the 1990s at the Pullman campus of Washington State University on the east side. When Jones made the move to the other side of the mountains in 2008, the perennial project was put on the back-burner. That is until Colin Curwen-McAdams joined Jones’s team as a Ph.D. student to revitalize perennial grain breeding efforts and focus them on the coastal Northwest, between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
A Regional Perennial Grain and Forage Crop
Early efforts in perennial grain breeding at Pullman included planting out different germplasm from collections all over the country and making crosses between wheat and related species. Curwen-McAdams planted a little bit of everything Dr. Jones’ program had developed over the last 20 years and started making new crosses of wheat and wheatgrass species adapted to the western part of the state. Thus began the journey of breeding a perennial grain and forage crop for this coastal region. There are different pest and disease problems for grains here. Nestled against the Puget Sound, crops in this region experience moderate winters and summers with abundant moisture, an environment very different from eastern Washington and most places inland.
To my surprise, despite these moderate winters, one of the biggest challenges Curwen-McAdams has experienced is in getting the plants to survive through the winter. “The interesting part is the same lines that I had die on me here have done alright in Pullman where it can get much colder and they get snow regularly. So it’s not just related to temperature.” Curwen-McAdams explains that this region gets abundant moisture through the fall so the plant keeps growing and wants to flower. But then the cold comes along and the very tender flowers die from the cold. In contrast to the other side of the mountains, “In Pullman there’s not a lot of moisture, so the plant kind of sits there and gets covered in snow, and by the time everything wakes up in the spring, it ends up being okay. So it’s really about how the plant prepares itself for what’s next.” Colin’s theory is that since a lot of the materials have been selected for over 20 years in eastern Washington, they’ve become synchronized to that environment. “So that’s where the regional aspect of plant breeding comes in,” Curwen-McAdams points out, “changes in latitude, changes in temperature, changes in agricultural system, all of that will change what that crop needs to do for the system and what the plant needs to do to survive. “
A Balancing Act
Other benefits of regionally based plant breeding are that researchers can base their efforts on the needs of farmers of that region. Curwen-McAdams says that in their valley approximately 80 different crop types are grown in rotation, and the primary reasons farmers grow grain there is to break up pest and disease cycles while returning organic matter to the soil. “They’re not really growing grain as their primary crop. They’re definitely not growing grain to make a profit…So how can we make that grain crop more beneficial to the overall rotation?” Curwen-McAdams says that by adding organic matter with a crop with deeper roots that a farmer doesn’t have to till for a few years in between could increase yields of, say, potatoes that follow it. “So it’s a different target to hit than replacing grain where grain is grown. And I think that’s something important to point out.”
“If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, [a shorter timeline] could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that. You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process.”
When asked about the attitudes of area farmers that are interested in perennial grain crops Curwen-McAdams says they are “generally interested and cautiously optimistic”. Growers have shown a lot of interest in a crop that can be used as both grain and forage, but he emphasizes the importance to not over promise this idea to farmers; “With perennial grain development there’s a constant struggle between over promising and letting people down and then having people stop caring because you can’t produce something on a timescale that they’re familiar with.” Curwen-McAdams reasons that an annual wheat variety from a cross to a release might take 8-10 years, and a lot of producers have a similar expectation for perennial grains. However, Curwen-McAdams and other perennial grains breeders know that following a timeline like that isn’t all that feasible. “If I were to use materials that do well here [right away] as opposed to bringing things from somewhere else, that could maybe work, if the environments are similar enough, but as a plant breeder you don’t expect to get lucky like that. You expect to have to bring in interesting components and then reassemble them through the breeding process,” he says. The goal of their program has been to add a genome onto bread wheat through cross pollination and selection and at this point they have some advanced materials that are stable, which to my limited understanding of plant breeding, is a great success in the world of perennial grains. Materials that are ready to be adopted by farmers is still several years down the line as of now, but Curwen-McAdams remains hopeful, “The message to me is there’s a tremendous potential and in order to realize that potential we need breeding efforts, we need to have conversations with growers to understand what the crop actually needs to do in their system, and then we need those conversations to expand beyond that to the people who are actually going to use that grain in order to make sure that we [are on target].”
Another facet of sustaining the interest, is getting the potential users of perennial grain like bakers, maltsters, and brewers, and the consumers of these potential products, to think of the crop in a different way than they think of wheat. “Trying to get a hybrid is really about trying to capture a lot of those qualities that we like from wheat in the new crop and then hopefully being able to give it a name and a place so that it doesn’t have to be defined as wheat, because if it has to be defined as wheat, it has to do exactly what wheat does and be perennial. That’s really a challenge.”
Curwen-McAdams points out Triticale, the product of crossing rye with wheat, as an example. It’s given its own name, isn’t expected to fully behave like wheat or rye, and with that has a different place in the market. Curwen-McAdams refers to the purple and blue spring wheat breeding, another project he works on, to further explain, “The only market classes for wheat now are red and white. By breeding something that is outside market classification you immediately remove any sort of potential market for it and you also remove any pricing structure that’s been placed. With that there’s a potential to redefine what the price of that grain is based on what the farmer needs from it and what it can do for the community.” I found this a very interesting point made for developing a crop for a specific area, and something to certainly keep in mind as breeders continue to make advancements on perennial grains.
What Should We Name It?
Naming a new crop is not only important in the realm of marketing and bringing consumers on board, it’s also important for scientists to effectively communicate their progress to one another. Curwen-McAdams, Jones and several other scientists just published an article in Journal of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution suggesting the nomenclature for one of the stable lines they’ve developed, a cross of Thinopyrum ponticum and Triticum aestivum, as ×Tritipyrum aaseae after Dr. Hannah Aase who contributed to early efforts working with these hybrids. “At this point it is its own thing separate from its two parents,” said Curwen-McAdams.
“Names are important. They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world. “
He expressed his frustration in talking to other researchers because there was no more specific way they could refer to this advanced material except to call it ‘perennial wheat’. Washington State University had put out a press release announcing the article’s release, generating excitement among several local news sources. The message may have gotten blurred, as stories portrayed the Mount Vernon group as discovering perennial wheat, rather than naming a new hybrid species. As of now, Curwen-McAdams hasn’t gotten a lot of feedback from scientists in the perennial grain community yet, but he’ll continue to use the proposed naming structure as a foundation. He hopes that he’s started a conversation and brought attention to this important component of developing a new crop, “Names are important,” he says “They help us organize information and influence how we think about the world. The name doesn’t define the crop, but hopefully having one opens the space for people to collaborate in doing so.”
The article is open access at SpringerLink. Click here to read it.
If you have ideas to share with Colin about perennial grain nomenclature or other questions about breeding projects at Mount Vernon Research Center you can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org