CORVALLIS - During his 40-year career as a plant geneticist at Oregon State University, Warren Kronstad earned an international reputation as a wheat breeder and researcher.
Kronstad, 68, died last Sunday in Corvallis after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.
"There are many things to celebrate in Warren Kronstad's achievements," said Jim Peterson, who assumed leadership for OSU's wheat breeding program following Kronstad's retirement in 1998. "Perhaps his most long lasting legacy will be the 100 international graduate students he brought through the OSU wheat breeding program. They will have an impact on the world food supply and combating hunger for years to come."
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."
Closer to home, Kronstad and collaborators developed a large percentage of the grain varieties grown in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest 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, where wheat is shipped to foreign markets.
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. "And he was one of a few agricultural scientists with a vision of developing countries."
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.
Wheat growers in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest continue to reap the fruits of Kronstad's wheat breeding research. A soft white wheat variety named Weatherford was released last fall. Two other varieties, Temple and Winsome, the first hard white spring wheat developed by OSU, were released recently through Kronstad's effort.
"The public will benefit from these varieties for many years to come," Peterson said.