Wheat breeder trades Idaho for Oregon
Zemetra pledges to build program for graduate students
By MATTHEW WEAVER
In the face of rapid changes in the wheat industry, Oregon State University turned to experience for its new winter wheat breeder.
Bob Zemetra, currently soft white winter wheat breeder at the University of Idaho, will take over as OSU's winter wheat breeder in May, the university announced Jan. 3.
Zemetra said his goal is to continue the work begun by his predecessor, Jim Peterson, who left for European seed company Limagrain last March. That means improving the quality of soft white winter wheat and meeting the needs of growers in Oregon and beyond, he told the Capital Press.
"I've always considered I was breeding for all the growers in the Pacific Northwest," Zemetra said. He's been with the University of Idaho for 26 years.
One of the attractions of the Oregon position was the opportunity to work within a team of researchers devoted to wheat and cereal improvement, Zemetra said. Another goal is to make OSU's cereals program a place for graduate students who want to study plant breeding.
Russ Karow, head of OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, said Zemetra was the top candidate in part because of his past work with other OSU researchers. He's working with OSU's Carol Mallory-Smith to study gene flow between wheat and the weed jointed goatgrass.
"We had some other very good candidates in the pool, but in many cases they were younger folks with lesser amounts of experience," Karow told the Capital Press. "It would have taken longer to get them up to experience. Our thought was an experienced person would suit us best at this point in time."
Zemetra still has courses to teach at the University of Idaho, so his official starting date with Oregon will be May 23. Karow said Zemetra will be involved in wheat research reviews and key activities over the coming months.
UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean John Hammel wished Zemetra well and called his departure a loss for the wheat breeding and crop science programs.
Hammel said the university must determine the future direction of its wheat breeding program, as it considers collaboration with OSU and Washington State University on varietal development issues.
"Do we fill (the position) with another wheat breeder or do we look at increasing our collaborations with WSU for Northern Idaho?" Hammel said. "These are the types of things we have to determine."
Karow said Zemetra will examine the current status of OSU's winter wheat breeding program, initially focusing on the same areas Peterson made a priority, including quality and disease resistance.
Another key need will be new wheat varieties designed specifically for the Willamette Valley, which has seen a significant increase in wheat acreage in the past few years.
"We don't see that acreage going away any time in the near term," Karow said.
The region has unique environmental conditions, Zemetra said. Increased moisture is good for yield, but also increases the potential for diseases such as septoria and barley yellow dwarf virus, normally not seen in other wheat-growing areas of the state.
Zemetra doesn't foresee rapid change to OSU's program.
"The goal will be to produce varieties that increase profitability for producers in Oregon," he said. "Varieties that do well here have the potential to do well in other parts of the Pacific Northwest."