STILLWATER — It’s a safe assumption everyone cares – at least a little bit – about the source of the food that finds its way to the dinner table each night. If that’s the case, then Oklahomans should care a lot about Oklahoma Foundation Seed Stocks.
Oklahoma Foundation Seed Stocks an important part of the farm to fork chain
Part of the Oklahoma Agriculture Experiment Station, OFSS plays a crucial, but perhaps not very well known or understood role in the farm to fork food supply chain.
In fact, as Jeff Wright, OFSS coordinator, production and operations, explains it, the program is practically the beginning of that all-important chain.
“We’re almost the starting point when new varieties of different crops, such as wheat, come about that have better attributes, whether it’s better disease resistance or more yield or whatever the quality,” Wright said. “We’re the beginning for increasing that seed to get it out and on the table.”
In other words, OFSS, for example, has a direct hand in the wheat that’s turned into flour that’s turned into your favorite breads and baked goods.
“As far as what good is Foundation Seed to the consumer, the consumer should be comforted to know Jeff Wright and the Oklahoma State University Foundation Seed program works closely with the OSU Wheat Improvement Team in bringing some of the best end-use quality varieties in the industry — not just here in our state, but in the nation in the hard red winter wheat belt — to flour millers to make some of the best quality products we have,” said Joe Caughlin of Caughlin Seed, a Certified Seed producer and farmer based in Tonkawa, who has been purchasing certified seed from OFSS for 20 years.
“That’s one of the neat things about Oklahoma State and the breeding process through the university,” Caughlin said. “The end-use quality is an extremely high priority with them and Foundation Seed helps that to get into the hands of the certified seed producer and ultimately into the hands of the commercial wheat farmer.”
How exactly does OFSS do what it does?
Essentially, it functions as an amplifier.
There are four classes of seed for crops — Breeder’s, Foundation, Registered and Certified. OFSS takes the small amount of seed a breeder generates as part of the research and development of new varieties of crops and produces foundation class seed.
Seedsmen and producers purchase Foundation Seed from OFSS, which gives them the ability to generate Registered or Certified seed. Eventually, this seed, regardless of class, is cultivated into crops that help feed people across Oklahoma, the nation and even the world.
OFSS is self-supporting, annually producing an average of 17,000 to 18,000 bushels of seed for wheat, up from an average of 10,000 to 11,000 just a decade ago.
It also sells seed for barley, grass, mungbeans, oats, peanuts, rye, soybeans and triticale.
“Consumers provide demand for food products, which begins not with the crop but with the starter seed that launches the crop,” said Brett Carver, lead expert for OSU’s Wheat Improvement Team. “Anyone who cares about food supply and security will care about the seed necessary to generate our food supply. Foundation Seed ensures that precious seed makes it from a scientist’s hands to the farmer’s hand and then into our hands. It’s the quintessential hand-me-down.”
Carver said OFSS plays a huge role as the pivot point between plant breeding research and commercialization of its products.
“In a physical sense, I like to think of the Foundation Seed building as the classic ‘technology transfer center,’ as it transfers technology in the form of new wheat seed from the university to the farm and subsequently to the kitchen table,” he said. “The work of WIT is not just advanced. It’s brought to bear.”
Interestingly, there is a Foundation Seed operation and a crop improvement association in almost every state.
Though each undoubtedly operates a little differently, the mission of putting better seed varieties in the hands of seedsmen and farmers remains consistent. So, OFSS isn’t unique from that standpoint.
However, one aspect that perhaps sets OFSS apart is the closeness with which it works with breeders. More specifically, advanced experimental lines, or candidate varieties, are being cultivated through OFSS well before those varieties are officially released.
“We have started increasing lines earlier in the process so we can have larger amounts of seed available when a new variety is released,” said Wright, who noted Kansas is now following OFSS’s lead in this area.
Particularly in the case of wheat, this earlier adoption has not only given the OSU WIT a higher level of quality control, it also has allowed WIT to release and quickly distribute seed to producers.
“This makes a huge difference,” Carver said. “For example, Gallagher became Oklahoma’s number one planted variety in the fall of 2015, just three and a half years after it was released by the Oklahoma Agriculture Experiment Station in February of 2012. That was an amazing turnaround and set an example for how effective this technology transfer can be and will be.”
Caughlin recalls that in previous years, when a new variety came out, there may have been only small amounts of seed available to growers, making it tough for them to profit early on.
By contrast, these days, several thousand bushels of seed may be available from OFSS for allocation at the time a variety is released, allowing producers a chance to register some critical sales even in the first year.
“It’s helped me a lot,” Caughlin said. “It’s good for the producer, it’s good for the Foundation Seed program, it’s good for the royalty stream back to the university. It’s just a win-win deal. It’s good for commercial producers that are purchasing the product because they can get new products out on their farms quicker.”
Credited with nearly a decade of service to OFSS, Wright has experienced first hand the program’s evolution, including the growth in production, which has been primarily sparked by the effort to make larger quantities of seed for newly released varieties available sooner as well as increased demand for OSU-bred wheat varieties from surrounding states such as Kansas and Texas.
Incidentally, peanut sales also have been on the rise in recent years in part because the newest varieties carry the high oleic trait, which means the peanuts have a longer shelf life and they’re healthier.
To handle the increasing demand, in November OFSS broke ground on a new 20,000 square-foot space, which will include a separate cleaning facility.
Once completed, the new complex is expected to make the OFSS staff’s jobs easier and the operation even more efficient and effective.
“With the current facility, we don’t have enough room to house all that seed we’re selling now. A lot of times in the late summer, we just run out of places to put it, so we have to start hauling it to farmers,” said Wright, who anticipates the new facility will double OFSS’s capacity.
On a broader level, Carver believes the new facility will positively affect WIT’s ability to respond to producers’ needs and consumer trends much more quickly without losing the breadth of the program.
“This is possible by enhancing not only capacity of seed production, but also its efficiency,” he said. “We can continue to move at a rapid pace, but with this level of nimbleness we can move in different directions with the various kinds of wheat developed, whether for mass-production bakeries or artisan bakers, or for commodity markets or specialized markets.”