Wheat standing up to the heat

Farm Forum

PULLMAN, Wash. (TNS) — Wheat is one of the top three produced crops in the world and its sustainability is important in an ever-changing climate.

For areas like central and southeastern Washington, along with north central Idaho, wheat production can be challenging with the recent drier seasons.

Megan Lewien, 28, of Wisconsin, is researching ways to create wheat varieties that are drought resistant.

“If we can identify more drought-tolerant plants, the more it’ll increase the farmers’ yield in drought conditions,” she said.

The ultimate goal is to help farmers become confident in producing stable crops during a drought year, Lewien said.

Lewien is working on her doctoral degree in crop science with a focus in plant breeding and genetics at Washington State University.

“Wheat is very interesting genetically,” she said, adding it’s a reason she decided to go into the field of study.

She grew up in a small Wisconsin dairy town, but her love of plants grew during her undergraduate degree in horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Because wheat is a top-three crop, Lewien feels like she can make a huge difference by studying it and adding her research to the success of the crop.

Lewien is working with two plant breeders, Mike Pumphrey, a spring wheat breeder, and Arron Carter, a winter wheat breeder, to help advance her research.

Both men are professors at the university and work as her advisers, she said.

By working with two different types of wheat, Lewien is able to overlap her research and see what works best for one plant and what methods can be transferable among both the spring and winter wheats during breeding.

Pumphrey, an associate professor, said the research is important in combating the current fluctuations in weather. For the past few years, he said, the area has seen higher than normal temperatures with less rain fall.

“Wheat is vulnerable in a climate like ours,” Pumphrey said.

Wheat likes wet conditions and when conditions aren’t right, wheat won’t grow, Pumphrey said.

“It’s critical we identify the traits that allow it to tolerate increasing temperatures,” he said.

Wheat makes up about a quarter of the world’s food supply and it’s a key crop for farmers in the Northwest, he said.

“It’s a global staple crop,” Pumphrey said. “We try our best to be locally, regionally, nationally and globally relevant to wheat production.”

That’s where the research comes in.

When Lewien goes into the field, she takes notes on the maturity of the plants and looks at the uniformity and color. When she’s done, she’ll do spectral reflectance measuring, which is measuring how much of the sun’s light the plants absorb.

“The plant won’t absorb all of the sunlight,” she said. “It’ll reflect some of it back.”

If the plant is a dark green, that means it’s absorbing a lot of sunlight. If the plant is lighter green, it’s absorbing less, she said.

This type of measuring requires Lewien to be in the field at peak sunshine hours. She’ll spend about five hours in the field taking notes and measuring.

“There’s a long process of going from the field to sitting at a computer looking at a correlation,” she said.

It takes about two to three years of repeated research before the data becomes solid enough to be confident in. The first year is only an indicator, she said.

Lewien oversees 900 plots. Each plot is 5 feet by 12 feet and has a different genotype or genetic makeup that reflects certain traits.

“Different genotypes respond to droughts differently,” she said.

It’s important to study an abundant amount of plants because some of those plants aren’t drought resistant, and by studying them she can figure out why, Lewien said.

She measures each plot and looks at the plants’ color, the water status (which can help her estimate the root length), leaf size, biomass, genetic analysis and more.

“Many of the measurements we associate with increased yield under drought stress,” she said.

Lewien’s research will eventually be open to the public and will go to plant breeders who can use it in their own way to benefit their type of crop.

She is working with two other schools on creating drought-resistant wheat varieties and hopes that three colleges and three years of study produce solid results.

Lewien chose WSU because of its hands-on work offerings. Other schools that she was considering were more focused on the lab aspect, she said.

Another appeal to the university is that she knows her research will be used, and she sees other students at the university focused on rust resistance and disease-resistant plants. It’s exciting to her to know that their work matters.

“It’s a practical and important way of going about research,” she said of being in the field.