University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Cream of Wheat

Since 1888, University of Minnesota researchers have been breeding wheat plants to make them stronger and more productive. Can they make this crop more popular in Minnesota?

Susan Reynolds and James Anderson on the U's St. Paul campus. Photo by Mark Luinenburg

The century-old Agronomy Seed House on the St. Paul campus looks like the kind of cozy cottage where Hansel and Gretel might live. Situated among more modern campus buildings, the vine-covered stucco structure with a barn-style roof serves as headquarters to the U’s wheat breeding program, which has been developing new varieties since 1888.

The program has released 35 varieties since its founding and has stepped up the pace in the last decade, creating such robust hard red spring wheats as Rollag, Norden, Linkert, Bolles, Shelly, and Lang-MN. Each variety improves on the last, whether with better straw strength, disease resistance, or yield. In January, the U released MN-Washburn, named after Minneapolis’s storied Washburn mills, which does well in all three categories.

The Seed House is also a living museum of agricultural history. Tall rows of filing-cabinet-style drawers contain envelopes of hard spring wheat varieties. Plastic bins piled on the floor contain even more. The U has seeds from all its breeds going back to the 1800s, some of which are kept in cold storage.

 “They all have different characteristics,” says the project’s lead technician, Susan Reynolds (B.S. ’01, M.S. ’05), of the varieties. Wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, she stands next a large rolling cart holding bags of a new perennial wheatgrass called Kernza (read about it here), which the U is helping to develop. Nearby, there are machines that measure protein, weigh grains, remove casings, and separate the seeds for packaging.

Shelly is the highest yielder, according to Reynolds. Others are better at resisting diseases such as stem rust, leaf rust, Fusarium head blight (also known as scab), barley yellow dwarf virus, and bacterial leaf streak. In 2018, Linkert was the number one variety sown in Minnesota; it was planted on more than a quarter of the state’s wheat acres. “It’s named for my predecessor,” says Reynolds. “They wanted to use ‘Gary,’ but the name was taken.”

The program’s goal isn’t to get farmers to switch from growing corn or soybeans—Minnesota’s lead cash crops—to wheat, says James Anderson (B.S. ’87), professor of wheat breeding and genetics, who earned his Ph.D. from Cornell and now leads the project. Rather, he hopes farmers will add wheat as a third crop to their rotations. 

Currently, corn and soybeans are grown on around 8 million acres each in Minnesota, while spring wheat is grown on just over 1.5 million acres, mostly in the northwestern part of the state. Anderson is pushing for more wheat and, therefore, more diversity in the cropping system (2018 saw an increase over 2017). “In any type of a monoculture, when you have the same crop year after year on the same land, there will be problems,” he says. “Weeds, diseases, soil-borne insects, you may have all of those problems.” A two-crop rotation will reduce some of the issues. Adding a third crop, planted at a different time, is even better. Anderson says solid-seeded wheat can shade out weeds; also, wheat doesn’t host some of the insects that infest corn and soybeans.

“Lengthening the time between those other crops is good for everybody,” he says. “It can also help the soil quality.”

Anderson has been with the wheat program for 20 years and is only its sixth wheat breeder. A native Minnesotan who grew up on a farm near St. Peter, he says, “I like working on wheat specifically because of the cultural ramifications and the history of the crop. And because it’s the one crop that is consumed directly as a food, compared to the other major crops.” 

The wheat program is funded by the U, the federal government, and the Red Lake Falls-based Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council. Growers tell Anderson and Reynolds which attributes they want and the program endeavors to deliver. In 2018, the majority of wheat acres in Minnesota were planted with U varieties.

Wheat was crucial to frontier farmers in Minnesota and to Minneapolis’s burgeoning milling industry. According to a 1948 Minnesota Historical Society article: “At one time nearly every farmer in the state concentrated on wheat production. Wheat was the great cash crop. It opened the way to fortune, and so attractive was it to the average farmer that he neglected other phases of farming almost entirely.”

But then, farmers turned to crops like corn and soybeans, which were incentivized by crop insurance programs and made even more popular by seed innovations. Markets have been willing to accept genetically modified corn and soybeans. Not so with wheat, perhaps because it is so directly converted to food and linked to bread, considered the staff of life.

That’s why the U’s cross-breeding program is so crucial. The wheat program combines plants twice a year in a greenhouse and examines the progeny from each. “We’ll throw out some of the crosses that don’t look good,” says Anderson. “The ones that look most favorable, we will derive lines and do repeated testing for several years until it breeds true. Then we gather data to see if it’s worthy of a release.”

The program has test fields in St. Paul and experiment stations, called Research and Outreach Centers, in Crookston, Lamberton, Morris, and Waseca. New lines are screened for disease resistance and other desirable qualities. Then, the resulting wheat goes to a lab in Fargo, which mills it and bakes bread with it.

The program’s “unicorn,” says Anderson, is to breed wheat that is high in protein, making it good for baking, but also heavy, meaning it’ll produce a good yield for farmers. Unfortunately, the two characteristics are at odds. “The wheat can put its energy into the starch, the main component of the grain, or protein,” he explains. “You can’t really get both at the highest level.” Anderson says that each new variety gets the program closer to that goal. Lang-MN, released in 2017, is the best one yet when it comes to overall yield and protein.

“Wheat carries more production risk compared to soy and corn,” he says. “Part of my job to make it less risky.”

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