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Message sent to WSU wheat breeder; commission pulls funds

(Thursday, March 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Scott A. Yates, Capital Press:

SPOKANE – Impatient over a lack of varieties coming out of his winter wheat breeding program, frustrated by his philosophical objection to the use of new seed technologies, and put off by a personality that can be described as brusquely brilliant, the Washington Wheat Commission sent an abrupt message to Steve Jones March 13.

In an unprecedented move, the commission voted to withhold funding from Jones’ winter wheat breeding program pending a meeting with officials at Washington State University’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics. That meeting, scheduled for April 3, is intended to lay out concerns being heard from an increasing number of farmers.

Brad Tompkins, who made the motion, said he was encouraged to act on behalf of farmers who have spoken to him. Dan McKay, who voted with Tompkins, said it comes down to whether the winter wheat program is grower-directed or breeder-directed. Curtis Hennings abstained from voting, but acknowledged Jones may be his own worst enemy.

“If Steve had been out at grower meetings, interacting with folks and being a compatriot, even if he hadn’t been producing, this attitude would be different,” he said. “The total seclusion hasn’t helped him any.”

Lynn Blair voted against the motion, but he agreed Jones’ isolation is a problem. Still, he remains a Jones backer.

“I think he’s a hell of a good researcher, and like a lot of politicians or business people, he may not have the best way of expressing himself. But to say he’s wrong, I won’t say that,” Blair said.

Commission funding is an integral part of Jones’ program. Since 1995, the group has directly funneled $1.66 million into research he directs. In fiscal year 2002/03, the commission budgeted $67,000 for his soft white winter wheat breeding program, $68,000 for his hard red and white breeding and $54,000 for pre-breeding and genetic mapping. All of that money is based on assessments from growers.

Although McKay and Tompkins indicated the leadership of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers supported their action to withhold funds, officials at the growers’ group did not return calls. Chris Herron, chairman of WAWG’s research committee, said leadership told him to issue a no-comment.

Herron, however, couldn’t resist making a personal remark. He called Jones among the top handful of breeders in the nation and said he remains a firm supporter of the winter wheat program.

In an e-mail, Jones said he hadn’t heard anything from the commission, adding, “It could be that the commission and I have different ideas about how I should do my job. I am doing my best for the growers of Washington.”

Struggles between Jones and the commission are nothing new. A disagreement in the recent past is the researcher’s unwillingness to breed Clearfield herbicide resistance into his wheat lines. His program is also touted among U.S. environmental groups as the only GMO-free wheat breeding program in the nation.

Although conflicts over the use of technology usually don’t get personal, this time one of the main issues being raised is Jones’ personality. Tompkins said wheat breeding is about more than just breeding wheat. It is about interactions with farmers and the rest of the industry.

“You can’t ignore the system that is out there,” he said.

Brad Isaak, the president of the Grant County wheat association, is part of that system. At a recent meeting, he said his group encouraged the wheat commission to send Jones a message.

“Somehow, we have to have our wheat breeders listening to us and working with us and not going off on their own,” he said.

Ron Juris, a farmer near Bickleton, said if growers are going to put a large chunk of change into Jones’ program, they need to have better communication.

“We are the guys putting out the money. We’d like to see what we are getting, and so far we haven’t gotten much,” he said.

Al Anderberg, a Spokane County grower, said it’s tough to look at all the varieties coming out of Kim Kidwell’s WSU spring wheat breeding program compared with Jones’ winter one.

“We haven’t had much to go on for a long time. I think he has positioned himself well for turning out good varieties, but patience is running thin on the growers’ part,” he said.

The lack of new varieties being ushered out the door of Jones’ winter wheat program, however, may not be a fair complaint. Breeding is a science with an extremely long time frame.

Bringing a variety out in eight years is an accomplishment worthy of celebration. Jones has been in his current position for going on nine years.

More to the point may be comments referring to the secretiveness of Jones’ program, how he doesn’t plant his newer wheat lines in regional nurseries for evaluation, and keeps varietal information off limits even to WSU’s crop variety evaluation personnel.

“He’s not real open to showing us what is coming,” Juris said. “He should put his cards on the table. Tell us what is the potential and a possible time line for releases, to show that we are getting something for our money.”