The partial federal government shutdown could delay the hiring of a USDA researcher to lead the investigation into starch problems in wheat, an industry representative says.
Before the shutdown, the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, Wash., was on track to post the job announcement in January, said Mary Palmer Sullivan, vice president of the Washington Grain Commission.
“Because everything is shut down, every day that goes on is a day lost in that process,” she said. “Whether we can catch up, I’m not sure. It’s definitely hampering the process.”
It would depend on the person ultimately hired for the position, Sullivan said.
The falling number test measures starch damage caused by rapid changes in temperature or rain during critical stages of wheat development. In 2016, starch problems caused much lower falling number test scores and cost farmers more than $30 million in lower prices.
The new researcher will likely oversee the future of falling number research, working with breeders to identify traits and genes that could impact pre-harvest sprout and late-maturity alpha-amylase, so that future varieties are not susceptible, Sullivan said.
The industry is also working on a more accurate test and a quick test that will help farmers avoid mixing wheat with low falling numbers with wheat with higher falling numbers.
“It’s a huge undertaking, but I think once we get the right person in this position, we’ll have a better feel for where we’re going,” Sullivan said.
She also said it will likely take USDA personnel some time to catch up on their workload when the shutdown ends and they return to work.
“This is a really critical time of year when they’re finishing up all of their quality samples, evaluating varieties and cultivars,” Sullivan said. “For every day that goes on, they’re going to be that much further behind.”
All USDA ARS operations are essentially shut down, including measuring falling number results from last year’s crop, said Mike Pumphrey, spring wheat breeder at Washington State University.
“It’s going to be a delay in getting information,” Pumphrey said.
The USDA’s Western Wheat Quality Lab is also shut down, meaning nobody is running milling and baking analyses on wheat samples, he said. Pumphrey’s breeding program will have to plant materials that have not been completely assessed for their quality.
“That’s not the end of the world. ... I’ll get the information eventually this year,” he said. “But basically it causes some inefficiencies.”
Researchers will be behind in getting falling number information to farmers to help them make planting decisions, Pumphrey said.
He said the shutdown doesn’t increase the risk to a grower.
“Weather and those things will still determine what happens,” he said. “Basically, it means we have less information as we’re entering another crop year.”
“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Sullivan said. “(The delay) just slows everything down.”