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Long time coming

Not all that long ago, wheat was left in the dust -- both literally and figuratively. Not only did growers occasionally find their crop suffering through long spells of drought, but funds for research, both public and private, had dried up as well.

While row crop yields were increasing rapidly, wheat was falling behind. From 1991 to 2008 average corn yields increased 42 percent, according to the National Association of Corn Growers. Over roughly the same time period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports wheat yields increased only 23 percent. While wheat growers have obviously made gains in yields, and some research has continued, at times it felt like row crops were lapping wheat on a regular basis.

But the tide is turning. In just the past few months, many exciting announcements have shown the wheat industry is worth an investment.

This week, Monsanto announced plans to reinvest in biotech wheat. Monsanto has acquired the assets of WestBred, LLC and plans to work on a seed and traits platform of drought-, disease- and pest-tolerance innovations. Initially, the focus will be on higher yielding varieties; longer term, the company intends to work on biotechnology in wheat, including herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant varieties.

And a January 2009 National Association of Wheat Growers survey, showed that farmers are ready for biotech wheat. Over three-quarters of the respondents said they supported commercialization of biotech wheat.

In May, wheat organizations in the three countries, the United States, Canada and Australia, announced they would work toward a synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in wheat. Part of the reason was the loss in acreage wheat has experienced due to drought-tolerant varieties of other crops encroaching in what have always been traditional wheat-growing areas.

Kansas Innovation Center for Advanced Plant Design also promises a bright future for wheat producers. The center, a joint project between Kansas Wheat, Kansas State University and University of Kansas, will focus on emerging commercial opportunities for wheat and sorghum.

By no means are these the only investments into wheat. There has been other funding, both private and public, that bodes well for the wheat industry's future. The shift is a fine example of what can happen when an entire industry works together toward a common goal. Better yielding, herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant wheat is still years away, but the first steps have been made. And that is the most exciting thing that has happened to wheat producers for some time.

Holly Martin can be reached by phone at 620-227-1806, or by e-mail at hmartin@hpj.com.

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