Monday, March 28, 2011


When I read animal-related listservs, I get very impatient because the members usually know so little biology.  Their level of understanding in some cases is not much more than “ducks say quack, quack and geese say honk, honk.”  But worse than their grasp of animal biology is their understanding of matters vegetal.  To them grain is like leggos or pop-it beads, small indistinguishable no-harm pellets of food, only suspect when their diet gets too carb-heavy.
My motivation and knowledge in relation to grains comes from two sources: the obvious one is that I’m living in grain country where the fields come right up to the boundary streets of the village and the historical one is that my father’s roommate at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Rudy Peterson, was part of the Green Revolution that improved grain seed enough to lift countries like India away from mass starvation one more time.  These were grain seeds changed by cross-pollination, not direct genome interference as is so controversial (and rightly so).  They were so proud!  But it entered them into a circle: the more food, the more people: the more people, the more food needed.
This was entirely different from today’s predatory commercial grain seed genomic stock “improvement” (gerry-mandering) which is meant to make the fields “Roundup ready” (meaning Roundup dependent) and non-germinating (meaning that you cannot save part of the crop to plant for the next year but must buy new seed stock).  I find that terrifying and yet I hear very little about it from environmentalists.  Maybe it slips attention because those who resist frankenfoods are mostly concerned about their personal health and not about the economic existence of farmers and ranchers.
So, aside from bigger and more, what do traditional wheat breeders work on?  Basically, from the outside of the practice, I’d say protein content which is something they talk about and test all the time; gluten content both for high-gluten to bake bread and low-gluten because some people have allergies; pest resistance; drought resistance; short growing season; ease of harvesting; storability; proportion of grain to straw (the stems) and other stuff that’s more esoteric.  I suppose rate and vigor of germination and, so some degree, pure aesthetics!  Some growers don’t like wheat with black beards -- it just seems wrong to them.  And I suspect that they love wheat that waves -- wouldn’t like stuff too stiff to dance. 
People have their fav varieties which begin life as formulas like MT0249 and later are given names that honor places or individuals.  “Duclair” is from MT0249 crossed with the pre-existing “Choteau.”  It’s a spring wheat with a solid stem -- you realize, of course, that most wheat stems or straw are hollow which is why we call those tubes for sucking up pop “straws.”  But there’s a little beast called a “sawfly” that gets into that hollow center to lay its eggs and then they go to work like mini-saws and -- timber! -- the wheat is on the ground.  You can’t cut it at harvest time if it’s lying on the ground.  It  can’t ripen if it’s cut while it’s still green.  Once it’s on the ground it begins to rot or sprout or be carried off by other small critters.  
The name “Duclair” comes from an old map that shows a post office by that name in the heart of sawfly country near Turner, Montana.  “Choteau” was also a solid-stem variety so the improvement came from MT0249 which had longer green leaf duration.  Green leaves are what pump energy into the plant (chlorophyll is the photovoltaic mechanism for harvesting the sun) so the more green leaves the better.  The energy goes into the grain and then into your Wheaties and then into you.  Maybe that’s why Duclair is a little taller than Choteau.  Maybe you’re a little taller, too.
MTS07 13 winter wheat is a cross between a “Vanguard” derivative and the semidwarf AgriPro line “NuHorizon.”  The ag team wants to name MTS07 13 for a long-time extension agent named Judee Wargo.  In comparison to Genou, which it is meant to replace, the yield is four bushels per acre higher, has a more solid stem, and is about three inches shorter.  It resists stripe rust, has excellent milling and baking quality, and is as winter hardy as Genou.
The third new wheat is MTSO721, meant to be a potential replacement for “Rampart.”  It’s yield is seven bushels an acre higher, it has a solider stem than “Judee”,  it is as winter hardy and three inches shorter.  But the protein quality and baking quality are not quite so good.  Still, it resists sawfly better than Judee.  They want to call it “Bearpaw.”
Wait until the yuppie foodies get hold of this!  It might become more popular at cocktail parties than wine snobbery!   They’ve already been poking around in potato varieties.  Maybe you thought university people sat around with books in libraries.  These guys are out in the dirt.  
But plants is not all they do.  The entomologists are cooperating to figure out “trap crops” that are planted next to wheat fields, stuff that sawflies can’t resist so that they’ll all rush over there to saw off the stems of some other crop with no food value that can be ground up or burned, sawflies and all.  Those county extension agents are a devious bunch.  Their biggest problem was convincing the suspicious early ranchers and farmers that THEY were not a new form of sawfly.  I think they’ve probably managed to get that job done.
There is a third reason I think about grain quite a bit.  It was grain that began the ten-thousand-year-old development of cities and cultures that could sustain humanities and sciences.  Without grain we could not continue.  Yet we raise our grain in monocrop rows vulnerable to commodification, dependence on chemicals that will run out in the foreseeable future if they don’t cause us all to die of metabolic disorders sooner than that, and erosion of the topsoil of the planet that took millenia to form.  They don’t talk about all this in the small town cafés of grain country.  But they do at universities.  I hope for more cross-pollenization.

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