New center good for wheat farmers

Kansas wheat producers have a great reason to celebrate this year. According to a news release from the Kansas Wheat office, last week the Kansas Bioscience Authority announced it will fund the Kansas Innovation Center for Advanced Plant Design in the amount of $4 million for fiscal year 2010.

The Innovation Center is a public and private collaboration between Kansas Wheat, Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and many private investors.

The center will use a unique, state-of-the-art technology platform to conduct wheat, sorghum and native plants research targeted to specific market needs in the areas of human health and nutrition, animal nutrition and health and biofuels/biomaterials.

Once discoveries are made, the center will focus on commercializing these discoveries, bringing them to market to create additional value and wealth for Kansas.

The Kansas Wheat Commis?sion was the lead applicant for the KBA grant. The Kansas Association of Wheat Growers incorporated the business entity for the Innovation Center, called Heartland Plant Innovations.

Wheat producers, through KAWG, own 51 percent of the shares of Heartland Plant Innovations.

?Kansas Wheat is very excited and grateful to receive this award from the Kansas Bioscience Authority,? said Dusti Fritz, Kansas Wheat chief executive officer. ?The technology resulting from the center will allow farmers to be more efficient while producing high-quality, affordable food.

?When fully operational, the Innovation Center will be the premiere wheat and sorghum research facility in the nation.?

An interim director for the center has been hired, and the first meeting of the board of directors will be in early June. The board will perform a national search for a permanent director and will coordinate the research of highly skilled scientists at the center, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas.

Some expected outcomes from the center include: commercialization of sustainable, drought-tolerant, high-yielding varieties; foods with reduced allergenicity; new food products that are rich in antioxidants and cancer-fighting components; plant-derived compounds that are natural sources for dietary supplements; high biomass plants optimized for cellulosic biofuel production; high starch-content grains for animal feeds and ethanol that will ultimately result in animal wastes with less environmental impact and environmentally friendly plants that require less fertilizer and pesticides.

Predicted Center outcomes have the potential to return at least an additional $1 billion to the Kansas economy through the agriculture sector.

The announcement by the Kansas Bio Science Authority to fund the project was the targeted goal set by Kansas Wheat. It represents an investment of nearly seven years of work that began during a board meeting when wheat producer/board members expressed their frustration that wheat acres were declining due to lack of profitability and producers were switching to other more profitable alternative crops, thanks to improved genetics derived from research and development conducted primarily through private, for-profit companies.

In simple terms, major genetics companies were not investing in wheat research, prefer?ring investments in corn, soybeans and other crops where their potential return on investment is greater.

Kansas State University is a world leader in wheat breeding programs. However, its annual investment represents a small percentage of that invested by one major genetics company in one major crop.

Even through the check-off program, wheat producers cannot afford the hefty price tag to get started funding an R&D program that rivals the investment of $100 million, a relatively small sum by major league standards.

The challenge, then, was to create a way wheat producers could benefit through a greater emphasis on research, while mindful of our limited resources. Through intensive and exhaustive ?brainstorming? sessions, the collaborative model, a combination of public institutions, private companies and individual investors, began to show promise.

Though the concept did not become crystal clear at the outset, discussions between interested parties created an environment where options were eliminated or modified to the point where the choice was evidently clear to the parties that were still at the table.

My description of the process is simplistic, at best. Many conversations between Kansas Wheat staff, board members, representatives from various institutions and companies contributed greatly to the process.

This also was an evolutionary process in the intellectual sense, taking ideas from one conversation, modifying and adapting them to the current conversation.

The cause for celebration is this: Finally, we have a working model for research and development for the wheat industry that benefits wheat producers, through public and private entities, providing a way to invest major dollars in a research program that is designed to bring products to market.

Editor?s note: Paul Penner currently serves as president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers.

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