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Focus on Agriculture

June 11, 2014

The Logic of Investing During a Drought

By Melissa George Kessler

Ten years ago, most of us couldn’t have dreamed of the smartphones we carry around in our pockets today. Twitter hadn’t been invented; Facebook was in its infancy. But scientists were already working to develop the newest, most adapted varieties for this year’s crops.

Basic and applied research is what keeps the latest in products and services coming our way. In the case of plant research, this is a long-term process, even when sped up by modern methods and robust funding.

Plants are living beings that have unavoidable life cycles. Over time, scientists have to find ways get the information they need more quickly, sometimes without waiting for new generations to fully mature. Still, the key to success in ag science is continuing to work through good times and bad.

Research conducted in drought-stricken areas of the wheat belt offers a prime example of the complexity inherent in creating new and better plants as well as the need for ongoing investments in science even when economics point toward tightening the belt.

For instance, farmers in Oklahoma are facing the worst wheat-producing conditions in decades, which will likely result in about half of a normal year’s crop.

Such a disaster has an enormous economic impact locally, drastically reducing the incomes of farmers, suppliers, elevators and local businesses of all types.

Yet, these terrible conditions for rural communities offer a silver lining for the future of wheat in the region: an opportunity to test possible new varieties against a worst case scenario.

Oklahoma State University wheat breeder Dr. Brett Carver is in the process of reviewing 3-foot samples of more than 50,000 potential new wheat varieties. The hope is that there’s a blockbuster somewhere in his fields that will one day be planted on millions of acres, helping farmers improve their yields, quality and revenue.

“You want the environment you’re testing in to represent what may be down the road. In fact, some would say this is going to be a more typical environment in the Great Plains,” he said about the drought’s effect on his work. “So, yeah, you need times like this.”

Carver said the average time to produce a new variety of the winter wheat grown in his state is 11 years, fewer if researchers have access to doubled haploid or other technology.

That means that his program and others like it need funding over the long term to keep innovation coming to the farm. Farmers naturally understand this; after all, many of them are planning their businesses for the next generation.

The ag community has work in front of it, though, to communicate that message to policymakers, particularly in a time of ever-deeper budget cuts and diminished awareness of how vital science and agriculture are to our daily lives.

The data are clear that investing over time in good ag research pays enormous dividends. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, CAST, reports that spending on public agricultural research offers a return of approximately 32 to 1, meaning the money allocated by lawmakers and farmers today will pay off handsomely.

Melissa George Kessler is a writer, editor and organization development consultant working in agriculture.