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Western Innovator: Preserving the world’s small grains

For more than three decades, Harold Bockelman has maintained USDA’s National Small Grains Collection in Aberdeen, Idaho.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on October 9, 2017 2:38PM

Harold Bockelman, curator of the National Small Grains Collection in Aberdeen, Idaho, with variety plots from the collection.

John O’Connell/Capital Press

Harold Bockelman, curator of the National Small Grains Collection in Aberdeen, Idaho, with variety plots from the collection.

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ABERDEEN, Idaho — USDA has made ordering seed from its vast National Small Grains Collection similar to shopping for merchandise online.

Since 1898, the facility has preserved more than 143,000 types of wheat, barley, oats, rice, rye, triticale and wild relatives originating from throughout the world, maintaining a pool of genetics to help scientists tackle some of the great challenges facing agriculture.

Harold Bockelman, the collection’s curator of more than 30 years, explained crop researchers may search his online database for specific numbered lines, or by desired traits. The grain types, called accessions, are paired with descriptions and photographs. Map coordinates accompany some of the land-race accessions, which were cultivated over thousands of years, to show their place of origin.

Shoppers fill a virtual cart upon making their selections, though Bockelman’s service is free of charge.

“It looks more like an Amazon site than it used to,” Bockelman said.

In an average year, Bockelman and his staff mail more than 50,000 envelopes, each containing 5 grams of seed, to roughly 800 domestic and international crop researchers and cereal breeders.

Breeders have found plenty of hidden gems in the collection, such as PI 178383, a land-race wheat line originating in Eastern Turkey with resistance to dwarf bunt, stripe rust and other diseases. It was used as a parent in many modern crosses.

Frank Curtis, chief operating officer with Limagrain Cereal Seeds of Fort Collins, Colo., said the collection has provided his company with invaluable genetic material. Most recently, Curtis said Limagrain propagated seed from about 2,000 of the collection’s barley lines, hoping to cross them with European varieties to develop early maturing, drought-resistant malt lines adapted for Northwest conditions.

“It’s a wonderful initiative,” Curtis said of the collection. “Anything that has been in the gene pool and has potential use is preserved for all time.”

For several years, varieties from the collection have also been sent to Kenya and Ethiopia, where they’re being evaluated for resistance to a destructive stem rust found there, based on the concerns that it could spread.

The collection includes about 50,000 wheat, 33,000 barley, 20,000 oat, 19,000 rice, 2,000 rye and 2,000 triticale accessions, plus wild relatives. Each spring and fall, Bockelman and his staff plant a few thousand of the collection’s accessions to replenish seed and evaluate them in research fields at Aberdeen. Accessions are planted in 10-foot strips, separated by “guard rows” of unrelated crops. The staff uses a Japanese rice binder to harvest them.

Seed at the facility is stored at 42 degrees and 25 percent humidity and remains viable for up to 25 years. The collection is backed up by seed frozen in liquid nitrogen in Fort Collins, Colo., where it can be stored for up to 100 years. New accessions are added periodically. Bockelman now plans to add a wild barley collection obtained through an exchange by a Minnesota scientist.

“We still look out for possibilities to obtain other collections from throughout the world, but not so much now because our collection is fairly complete,” Bockelman said.

Harold Bockelman

Age: 68

Education: Undergraduate degree from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in plant genetics from University of California-Davis

Hometown: Aberdeen, Idaho

Job: Supervisory agronomist with USDA and curator of its National Small Grains Collection

Innovation: Maintaining USDA’s National Small Grains Collection for more than 30 years and helping to make accessing its materials more convenient


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