Purchase photos

Face of Kansas wheat retiring

12/18/2011

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

First came Arkan, the wheat that caused an uproar within the federal government's grain inspection service.

Dodge was next, followed shortly -- in a world where it takes anywhere from 10 to 12 years to bring a product to the marketplace -- by Norkan and Ike.

All those were the more traditional hard red winter wheats, varieties that have been grown on Kansas farms since Turkey Red first was brought to Kansas by Mennonites escaping from Russia.

Then wheat breeder Joe Martin, at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center south of Hays, made the switch to a hard white winter wheat.

He's now ready to release Clara CL, a white wheat variety that's "just got everything," Martin said.

Everything, as in resistance to wheat streak mosaic, soil-borne mosaic, leaf and stripe rust and sprouting tolerance.

It even will have resistance to the hated Hessian fly.

After that, someone else will be making the crosses, tracking thousands of varieties of wheat known only by number through a series of steps that take up to a dozen years to release to the public.

Come Jan. 6, Martin will retire. He started working at the-then Fort Hays Experiment Station in September 1974, as a plant pathologist. Six years later, he moved into his current position and has been there ever since, combining different varieties of wheat the old-fashioned way -- without genetic sequencing.

His task essentially has remained unchanged since he was named the wheat breeder: looking for disease and insect resistant traits that can be bred into a wheat variety able to retain good yields.

At the time, there was little else to look at other than hard red winter wheats.

So that's what he produced, starting with Arkan.

The Federal Grain Inspection Service, however, didn't like the look of Arkan wheat and immediately started grading it as a soft red wheat, striking at the very heart of a farmer's most important commodity, the price paid at the elevator.

Arkan was a mixed parentage wheat, the product of both soft and hard wheat varieties. But even though it was a hard wheat, its appearance wasn't the more traditional sleek look; instead, it took on the appearance of a chubby kernel of soft wheat.

Martin eventually won that battle, with FGIS changing its rules.

"They decided to start grading based on where the grain came from," he said.

That's important because soft wheats don't do well in Kansas, what with a sharply shorter growing season.

With the switch to white wheats, Martin has settled in, producing Lakin, Trego, Danby, RonL, Tiger and now Clara.

Never mind his close association, Martin is a true fan of white wheat.

"I certainly prefer products made with white wheat rather than red wheat," he said.

That's because white wheat produces a sweeter product, lacking the bitter tannins that can be found in red wheat.

White wheat has struggled, however, to win the hearts of Kansas farmers.

At its peak, white wheat accounted for approximately only 5 percent of the state's wheat crop.

Martin thinks white wheat got a bum rap when it was criticized in 1995 with problems of kernels sprouting in the head before farmers were able to cut it.

"I got reports from northwest Kansas where every red wheat had sprouted," he said.

The biggest problem was a result of grain elevators unable to separate the white from the red wheat, leading to a host of discounts on prices paid.

Today, most of the white wheat is grown either under exclusive contract or by farmers who are able to store it in bins on the farm.

Martin never did tinker with DNA manipulation in wheat.

"I felt like I had plenty to do," he said of using the more traditional methods. "I've not been impressed with the accuracy of the DNA work."

Wheat is a more complex crop than corn, for example, and there's simply not the market for genetically modified wheat.

And Martin believes it's necessary to run a wheat through a leaf rust test to make sure it's resistant, instead of simply injecting a gene believed to be resistant.

Martin's happy with what he's been able to accomplish.

"The thing I'm proudest of is the white wheat," he said. "Because we basically started everything. We probably had two white wheats out there that were the best wheat in the state."

That includes the red wheat varieties being planted.

He's pinning great hopes on the new white wheat variety being released.

Clara was chosen as the name because it enjoys the strengths of BASF's Clearfield variety, the "CL" connection.

"And I just happen to have a granddaughter whose name is Clara," he said.

What he'll do in the days after his retirement isn't set just yet.

"I just want to do something else," he said, unable to say what that might be. "I don't know, my wife keeps asking me that."

He's had offers for other jobs.

"But I'm not exactly looking for a full-time job," he said. "If I was, I would have stayed here."