CORVALLIS - An era is ending in the grain fields of eastern and western Oregon, rural communities around the state and at the Port of Portland.
Warren Kronstad, an Oregon State University plant geneticist - or "wheat breeder" to most farmers - retired from full-time work in December. And he says he's begun phasing out pretty much all of his far-flung research.
Kronstad, 66, is the most prolific and well-known practitioner of his trade the state has ever known. He and collaborators developed a large percentage of the grain varieties grown in the state in recent decades.
This includes "Stephens," a soft white wheat variety still commercially viable an astounding 20 years after it was released to farmers. Most commercial wheat varieties lose effectiveness after four or five years because of the attacks and adaptations of diseases and pests.
"I'd be hard-pressed to think of a U.S. variety that's been as successful," said Rollie Sears, a nationally known wheat breeder at Kansas State University.
Stephens dominated Oregon's wheat acreage for more than a decade. It still makes up about 40 percent of all the wheat produced in the state.
Economists estimate the high-yielding Stephens and other Kronstad varieties have added millions of dollars a year to the Oregon economy. The impact stretches from communities in the Willamette Valley and eastern and southern Oregon to the Port of Portland, which much of the grain passed through on the way to foreign markets.
"Warren has the knack and the tack to find the funds and get the research done," said long-time eastern Oregon wheat grower Frank Tubbs. "I wish he could clone himself."
Kronstad's reputation reaches beyond U.S. borders.
Besides teaching thousands of U.S. undergraduate and graduate students during his 40 years at OSU, he has trained graduate students from most of the major wheat-producing regions of the world.
These international students returned to their homelands to work on or lead breeding programs, or joined international research centers. In international wheat research circles, OSU-trained breeders eventually earned the nickname "Oregon mafia."
During his career, Kronstad stepped up the OSU breeding program's swapping of genetic material with foreign programs, cooperating with more than 125 countries in an effort to improve wheat varieties in Oregon and abroad.
"I've worked with many U.S. universities," said Sanjaya Rajaram, head of the wheat genetic improvement program for the famed International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (nicknamed CIMMYT), headquartered in Mexico City.
"Warren was one of a few top breeders in the United States who was in the field at the right time," said Rajaram. "Some weren't. They'd send their technicians. And he was one of a few agricultural scientists with a vision of developing counties."
During his four-decade career in Oregon, Kronstad also worked closely with famed cereal breeder Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for work at CIMMYT that contributed to the Green Revolution in cereal production in nations such as India.
Both Borlaug and Rajaram will speak at a "W.E. Kronstad Honorary Symposium" at OSU on Thursday, Feb. 18. The event, open free to students and the public except for the cost of lunch, is sponsored by OSU, the Oregon Wheat Commission and the Oregon Wheat Growers League.
Also, a "W. E. Kronstad Appreciation Lunch" is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 19, at the Shilo Inn in The Dalles.
Kronstad, noted for the long hours he put in cross-breeding and evaluating potential grain varieties in fields across Oregon and in other countries, grew up on "a little stump farm" five miles east of Bellingham, Wash. He believes a lesson early in life served him well.
"I learned very early from my father that you have to work hard to earn your pay," he said.
It's not surprising then that as Oregon's most prolific wheat breeder steps away from his job, and his replacement Jim Peterson, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture wheat breeder from Nebraska gears up, Kronstad is still concerned about work he considers not quite finished. He has a contract with the university to work about 1,000 hours year.
"We've got a soft white wheat variety named Weatherford that'll be released next fall that has resistance to major foot rot diseases. We've never had this before," he said. He also mentions hard white wheat varieties in the research pipeline with promising resistance to serious diseases that plague growers.
"But I don't intend to go on indefinitely with this, except for maybe a little international work," he said. "I don't want to get in Jim Peterson's way."