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Land Grant Day – New Facility Linked to the Past

This year Washington’s wheat growers brought in a record crop, a crop that will contribute more than $1 billion to the state’s economy.

Year after year, the wheat crop has been as dependable as the inevitable ringing phone at dinnertime. But it hasn’t always been that way.

When Washington’s first wheat breeder, William Jasper Spillman, reported to work at Washington Agricultural College on July 1, 1894, wheat growers were plagued by a variety of problems.

Some wheats yielded well but were killed off or badly damaged by harsh winters. Seed often shattered before farmers could complete harvests. And the tall plants had a tendency to fall over. Spillman, a plant breeder and mathematician by training, decided to cross some promising varieties to see if hybrids would exhibit desirable characteristics. In doing so, he independently rediscovered Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance, which were unknown at the time.

Spillman’s first variety was released in 1905. By 1911 his varieties were grown on half-a-million acres. As late as 1949 — 18 years after his death — his varieties were still the most widely planted in the state.

Today’s wheat breeders at WSU aim to improve disease resistance, increase profitability for growers and improve milling qualities. They also want to reduce environmental risks and hazards.

“If we can breed in resistance to a certain fungus that attacks wheat, we may be able to save growers $20 an acre in fungicide applications,” said Stephen Jones, WSU wheat breeder. “It also benefits the consumer and the environment because less chemicals are applied to the crop.”

Next August wheat, pea and lentil breeding at WSU will get a much needed boost when breeders move into a gleaming, new $8 million research facility funded by grower groups and state and federal appropriations.

The Washington Wheat Commission and USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council — the grower groups — were instrumental in efforts to get public funding in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

“We will have almost half an acre under glass,” said Jones.

The building will house six offices, two experiment preparation rooms, a meeting room, 20 growth chambers and 10 growth rooms.

The enclosed growth chambers and rooms will provide precise environmental controls. Scientists will be able to vary the temperature in these facilities from below zero to 90 degrees and control the light, creating artificial winters and summers. They will be able to grow three crops a year inside, which will help them slice several years off the 10 to 12 it now takes to develop new varieties.

“We will be able to check several diseases in a matter of weeks instead of taking a full year as it does in the field,” Jones said.

Breeders also will be able to experiment with plants that should not be grown in the field, including wild wheats, diseased plants, and genetically engineered plants. “We will be able to grow them under contained conditions then dispose of them safely in the greenhouse,” Jones said.

In homage to WSU’s first wheat breeder, the Wheat Research Facility Planning Committee has recommended the new facility bear Spillman’s name.

Original maps from the turn of the century show that Spillman’s wheat research plots extended east from the present site of Martin Stadium to Airport Road, encompassing the site of the new research center east of the Meats Lab on Wilson Road.

The Spillman Agronomy Farm south of campus then will be renamed for Orville A. Vogel, USDA-ARS scientist at WSU from 1931-1972, who bred wheats that helped usher in the Green Revolution. All of Vogel’s world-renown wheats were bred at the farm.

The College of Agriculture and Home Economics created the Land Grant Day over a decade ago to celebrate WSU’s heritage.

WSU was founded in 1890 under the provisions of the Morrill Act. The law provided grants of federal land for the support of colleges that would provide a practical education for the public, with special concern for those of rural background.

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