Arron Carter was born curious. He combines that trait with a strong belief in teamwork as he works to feed millions
Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, found his calling thanks to the University of Idaho’s location in one of the most productive wheat-growing regions in the nation.
“In the Northwest, wheat is one of the major crops,” he says. “If you’re going to go to school at the University of Idaho or Washington State University, you’re going to learn a little bit about wheat.”
Wheat is a food staple globally. It feeds millions of people and is a hardy crop that can be propagated in most climates. And, with the help of wheat breeders like Carter, the areas in which wheat can grow are increasing.
The process of breeding new varieties of wheat has a prominent place in history. Humans began domesticating wheat about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago and specifically bred for traits like stronger stems, earlier maturation times and non-shattering heads.
Nowadays, the process isn’t much different. The breeders just have different tools to help them make the right selections, Carter says. Developing a new variety of wheat is no simple task and requires breeders to consider the different growing environments around the globe.
“You get so much variation from year to year on what the temperatures are going to be, or when spring’s going to come, or how much moisture falls from the sky,” he notes. “We want to make sure a new variety is stable across multiple environments.”
While there have been many successes in Carter’s career, there have also been instances where a new variety just wasn’t successful in the field. Carter sees these “failures” as learning opportunities. They have helped him figure out what genes are susceptible to disease or environmental stress and exactly how to combine these genes to make a successful variety.
Driven toward research
Carter’s drive to improve winter wheat began in high school, with a teacher’s ’69 Corvette Stingray.
Every year, Carter’s agricultural teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.
“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”
Carter can’t exactly place where his interest in science came from, but like most kids he remembers being curious. He took things apart to see how they worked and put them back together – or at least attempted to put them back together.
This natural curiosity heightened when he started school. Instead of forcing him to read a boring textbook or memorize facts, Carter’s teachers would let him conduct his own research and find the topics that interested him. Along with his parents, Carter credits his science teachers as some of his biggest influencers.
“I got a lot of freedom to really do what I wanted to do,” Carter says. “I wasn’t stuck behind a book reading a chapter on some science thing I didn’t care about. My teachers let me explore.”
Carter’s first agriculture class was no different. In some ways, it was even better, he explains. The class required more applied research and gave Carter the opportunity to apply his love of math and science to real-world issues involving plants. He quickly found his passion. And by the end of his undergraduate career at UI, Carter decided he could work in plant breeding for the rest of his life.
Creating Jasper: WSU’s 100th winter wheat
When creating a new variety of wheat, Carter usually focuses on specific factors like disease resistance and tolerance to environmental stress. However, these factors are just small steps toward a much larger goal.
“I always joke around with the growers that really our research objectives haven’t changed over the 120 years that we’ve been breeding wheat at WSU,” he says. “We breed for high yield potential that’s economically beneficial for a grower and going to be sustainable in the long term.”
In the Pacific Northwest, wheat growers face the double threats of a fungal disease called stripe rust and drought.
“Everything we grow is based on whatever falls from the sky,” Carter explains. “The plants have to be pretty resilient and be able to take advantage of the moisture available. If moisture doesn’t come, they have to be able to withstand some of the drought stress.”
To give wheat disease resistance and drought tolerance, Carter and his team need to understand exactly what in the plant’s DNA creates resistance. First, he identifies DNA markers within known disease-resistant wheat varieties, and then uses this information to screen other varieties for resistance. This helps him eliminate nonresistant varieties, saving time and resources later.
“If I can use DNA markers in the lab, I can screen thousands of lines at a time. It’s more cost effective, more efficient, and I only take out to the fields the lines that I know have the desired traits,” Carter says.
Field screening and testing is often conducted in local cooperating farmers’ fields, making the relationship between the wheat breeders and growers mutually beneficial. To Carter, the WSU breeding programs are more of a collective rather than stand-alone programs — a collective made up of breeders, scientists, growers and consumers. So when the programs released their 100th variety, the decision on how to celebrate involved everyone.
A spring wheat breeder suggested naming it in honor of the very first wheat breeder, William Jasper Spillman. There already was a variety named Spillman, so the group agreed to name the new variety Jasper.
“Naming Jasper is a good example of what I think of when I think of wheat breeding here at the University. Although we’ve got a winter wheat program and a spring wheat program and the USDA program, it’s really a very collective work between all three programs,” Carter says.
Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.