By KEVIN WALKER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week wheat industry stakeholders conducted their annual fly-in to share concerns with legislators, the media and each other.
The message was that President Obama’s proposed budget holds some good news, in the form of a Fiscal Year 2014 budget request of $1.124 billion for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and $383 million in funding for USDA’s competitive grant program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.
Participants at the media briefing included Brett Carver, National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC) chair and a wheat breeder at Oklahoma State University; Paul Murphy, NWIC vice chair and a wheat breeder at North Carolina State University; Bob Zemetra, wheat breeder at Oregon State University; and Bing Von Bergen, National Assoc. of Wheat Growers (NAWG) president and a wheat farmer from Montana, among several others.
In addition to saying more federal money should be authorized and appropriated for the advancement of the wheat industry, the message from the stakeholders was the government is a force for good, and it must remain involved if the wheat industry is to thrive going forward.
“There is a fundamental role for the federal government for wheat research and agricultural funding as a whole,” said Von Bergen. “As a grower we demand that breeders figure out our problems. We rely on breeders to solve our problems for us. Things in nature are constantly changing.”
“Almost all the varieties of wheat grown in the United States were bred from public programs,” Zemetra, said. “It really takes a team effort to do it.”
He added funding needs to be strengthened for research in plant pathology. “We have one lab, one plant pathologist working on stripe rust,” he said.
Carver stated climate change is affecting plants and that this needs to be thought about as well when future funding is considered. Murphy said very little research is being done on local plant pest issues.
“A lot of problems are not receiving national attention,” he added.
Sherri Lehman of the North American Millers Assoc. said there aren’t enough “people to do the work we need” and Cory Martin of the American Bakers Assoc. added there are “real disease risks that we’re facing now and in the future.”
Mike Miller, a wheat farmer from Washington state, added to the theme of change when he said “things are much more mobile and fluid now than they used to be.”
“We need better traits that we can use for drought tolerance,” Carver said. “Without the ARS, we have to rely on the breeders. It’s a long-term effort. Drought tolerance is a major issue and it looks like it’s not going away.”
Murphy brought up the subject of the wheat genome. “It’s about five times the size of the human genome,” he said. “It’s a much more complicated genome. The wheat genome is going to open up a lot of knowledge that researchers can use to solve problems of drought tolerance and other problems.”
“We can directly select at a molecular level the genes that we want to improve things out in the field,” Zemetra added. “It will help us respond faster to evolving issues.”
“We now have scab-resistant molecular markers that we didn’t used to have,” Carver said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do scab-resistant work without federal funding.”
Murphy noted the genotyping labs were “earmarked” in the legislative process. “A lot of people don’t like that word, but those labs are making research far more efficient,” he said.
At one point someone brought up the issue of Ug99, a kind of stem rust found in Africa and other places, but not yet in the United States. “There’s a lot of research going on at ARS about Ug99,” said Melissa George Kessler, a spokeswoman for NAWG.
“It’s a great example of an issue that needs to be funded,” Zemetra stated. “It’s not in the country yet, but it might be in five to 10 years.”
He said researchers don’t want to be caught off-guard by Ug99. “Work on Ug99 in Pakistan has a national security benefit for us,” Kessler added, noting the work initiated there by the United States costs American taxpayers only $75,000 a year.