SPOKANE — Kimberly Garland Campbell is the only club wheat breeder in the world.
That’s important because club wheat is a key subclass of soft white wheat, grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest. The region’s industry blends and sells a blend of soft white wheat and club wheat, as Western white wheat, to customers in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore.
“Most people in the world really don’t know what club wheat is,” said Campbell, plant research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, Wash. “So that’s why, I think, I’m the only one.”
WSU has released several club wheat cultivars, but Campbell’s is the only breeding program that focuses exclusively on club wheat, she said.
Western white wheat export sales average more than $250 million each year, said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission. The grain commission provides funding to enhance Campbell’s club wheat breeding program.
Japan tenders require a minimum blend of 20 percent club wheat, Squires said. Thailand has a 10 percent minimum of club wheat
Some companies in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, have purchased containers of straight club wheat.
Campbell provided an update on her program to the grain commission board Nov. 20 in Spokane.
Her goals, she said, include maintaining and improving club wheat quality for Asian markets, maintaining and improving resistance to stripe rust and soil-borne diseases and broadening the club wheat germplasm base.
Quality is critical, the primary reason the subclass is sold, Campbell said.
Club wheat has a more compact head, giving it a clubbed appearance, and weak gluten and lower protein levels.
The difference in appearance doesn’t necessarily serve a plant function, Campbell said. But the clubbed head, the brightness and size of the kernel and of its flour help customers easily recognize the subclass.
Campbell met with several Japanese buyers last February, who stressed to her the importance of the look of the kernels.
“You can look at it and tell that it’s club wheat,” Campbell said. “You’ve got this particular quality associated with this thing you can just look at.”
Japanese customers emphasize the texture of the baked products. Campbell wants to improve how she assesses texture, she said.
Campbell’s program also helps other breeders in the U.S. reliably screen for stripe rust resistance. The PNW sees the disease each year and has a wide range of testing environments, Campbell said.
Campbell expects the need to continue.
“It’s a consistent problem,” she said. “We used to only see stripe rust over here, you really didn’t see it that much in the Midwest, but we think there was a change back in the mid 2000s that allowed the stripe rust pathogen to be a little more heat tolerant.”
The Washington wheat industry wants to make sure long-term funding is secure for Campbell’s program.
Squires stressed that there’s been no indication funding is in jeopardy. But the industry wants to be prepared in the case of an emergency or change.
“We don’t need any gap in what she does, because we can’t afford it right now,” grain commission board member Dana Herron said. “Club wheat is responsible for a big part of the market development increases we’ve seen in white wheat overseas in the last 10 years.”
If Indonesia were to buy 5 percent of the total club wheat volume in the U.S., farmers wouldn’t be able to produce enough of the subclass, Herron said.
“The market class right now is at a surplus and there’s no premium, but that can change overnight,” he said. “Right now, you’d say, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, it’s a flat line.’ Not for long, guaranteed.”