CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has hired a wheat breeder from Idaho to head its internationally recognized wheat variety development program.
Robert Zemetra, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at the University of Idaho, will start May 23.
Zemetra will collaborate with other OSU scientists to develop wheat germplasm and release new varieties with higher yields, better disease resistance and improved end-use properties. He also will serve as the primary ambassador between OSU and wheat industry leaders, including commissions, grower organizations, seed dealers and private breeding and biotechnology companies.
"This person needs to wear many hats," said OSU barley researcher Pat Hayes, who was on the hiring committee. "He’ll be developing wheat varieties with farmers, conducting world-class research, making discoveries and teaching."
Hayes said Zemetra’s reputation for breeding high-quality soft white winter wheat, the most popular kind of wheat grown in Oregon, and his experience with Pacific Northwest conditions made him an excellent candidate.
Oregon's farmers planted about a million acres of wheat in 2010, more than half of which was blanketed by varieties developed by OSU. Its wheat breeding program has been at work for more than a century, and its researchers have developed dozens of varieties adapted to Oregon's diverse growing conditions. One of them is ORCF 101, the most widely planted wheat variety in Oregon, accounting for almost 20 percent of the state's wheat acreage. In 2009, Oregon's farmers sold more than $260 million of wheat, making it the state’s fourth-largest agricultural commodity, according to a report by the OSU Extension Service.
At the University of Idaho, Zemetra serves as division chair of crop and weed sciences and oversees the northern Idaho Extension variety testing program for cereals and legumes. In his 26 years at the university, Zemetra has secured more than $5.3 million in grants and external research funding. In 2007, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Idaho Wheat Commission. He developed Brundage and Brundage 96, varieties that led to expanded domestic and international markets for Idaho wheat growers.
Aside from developing winter wheat varieties, Zemetra’s research has focused on applied biotechnology, including work related to disease resistance. He's working with OSU scientist Carol Mallory-Smith to study gene flow between wheat and jointed goatgrass, a weed found in wheat fields.
Tom McCoy, a member of the Oregon Wheat Commission who was on the hiring committee, said he hopes Zemetra will help growers address stripe rust, a disease that wreaked havoc on Oregon winter wheat crops last season.
Zemetra said he plans to do that as well as work on solutions to other fungal diseases, including Pseudocercosporella foot rot, Cephalosporium stripe and Septoria.
Zemetra, who has a doctoral degree in agronomy from Colorado State University, takes over for Jim Peterson, who left OSU in July to work as vice president of research at Limagrain Cereal Seeds.
"Jim Peterson did an excellent job in developing the program," Zemetra said. "If I’m going to put my stamp on it, I’ll be trying to maintain or increase productivity and then look at end-use quality and disease resistance so when people want to buy soft white winter wheat or hard wheat they want to specifically buy Oregon wheat."
Tana Simpson, acting administrator of the Wheat Growers League, which provides funds for OSU’s wheat-breeding program, said there has traditionally been a mutually beneficial relationship between OSU and growers.
"Having someone breeding for wheat at all times really allows us to accommodate environmental concerns that come up, like disease, and remain competitive," she said.
Zemetra will also hold the Kronstad Wheat Research Endowed Chair at OSU, which honors the late Warren Kronstad, a wheat breeder whose career at the university spanned four decades beginning in the 1960s. Kronstad expanded OSU's program with genetic material he collected from more than 125 countries in an effort to improve wheat varieties in Oregon and abroad.