Lure of Wheat Breeding

Linda F. Benedict, Blanchard, Tobie M.

Steve Harrison was determined to be different from his dad. His father spent 30 years developing wheat and oat varieties in South Carolina for Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Co. Harrison set out to study marine biology but eventually found his way into agronomy, studying under his father’s major professor at the University of Georgia while working toward his master’s degree.

In 1984, Harrison received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois where he studied soybean breeding and took a job breeding wheat and oats at the LSU AgCenter, which he has been doing for nearly 30 years – just like his dad.

“I love being in the field, making selections and the long-term nature of plant breeding,” Harrison said. “I really feel like I’m doing something positive, and that’s appealing.”

In that time, Harrison has grown the AgCenter’s wheat breeding program from a nursery with about 100 yield plots and a few hundred hand-planted progeny rows when he started in 1984 to 8,000 yield plots with 50,000 progeny rows today.

He said it took hard work and determination to expand the program, and funding from the Louisiana Soybean and Grain Research and Promotion Board allowed him to hire research associates and upgrade equipment.

Without his efforts, wheat would be a relatively minor crop in Louisiana. His locally-adapted varieties make it possible to grow wheat in Louisiana’s hot and humid conditions and under high disease pressure. Wheat has become an integral part of the cropping systems in the state, such as double-cropping with soybeans or cotton or planted in fallow years with sugarcane.

“It is a cash crop that comes in in June, so it helps finance the summer crops to some extent,” he said.

Harrison has made wheat more accessible to growers not only in Louisiana, but also across the southeastern United States through Sungrains, a partnership he developed among six universities that work together to breed and release small grain varieties for the entire region. Harrison conceived the idea for Sungrains while working on a project for a leadership program he participated in.

Harrison and breeders at the University of Arkansas, Texas A&M AgriLife, University of Florida, University of Georgia and North Carolina State University were already cooperating before joining Sungrains. He considered them good friends, so it was a natural partnership that allows sharing of genetic material, testing environments, financial resources and other capabilities to make all of the programs more effective.

No other universities had anything like it.

“It really is a unique program because we share so much,” Harrison said. “We send each other breeding material all the time – that kind of thing that would probably drive intellectual property heads nuts.”

Harrison said it took about two years to get the university administrations to agree to the partnership. Money was an issue because 25 percent of all royalties from released varieties are shared among Sungrains universities to offset the costs of additional testing activities, so there has to be some trust that all universities will contribute to overall productivity.

The cooperation worked so well for the first five years, it was extended for another five years in 2011, and two additional universities became members. He also sees it as a model for other breeding programs.

Creating Sungrains is a proud accomplishment for Harrison.

“I think we’ve contributed a tremendous amount to the economy of the state – many millions of dollars through improved wheat and oat varieties,” he said.

While he is still drawn to the water, Harrison doesn’t regret his career path that led him away from marine biology and into his father’s footsteps.

“I really enjoy it.” Harrison said. “I wouldn’t have stayed 28 years if I didn’t.”

Tobie Blanchard is an associate communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

1/10/2013 11:56:24 PM
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