PULLMAN — Washington State University researchers believe they have come up with a home-run variety of wheat that grows well in the Northwest, produces high yields and provides premium noodle-making properties sought after by Asian countries in a market currently dominated by Australian growers.
The variety of soft-white wheat, which has been under development for a decade, was called "Ryan" in honor of the late Ryan A. Davis, a WSU alum and former manager of the university's Spillman and Cook research farms. Davis died of cancer in 2016 at age 38.
"We have always focused on high quality wheat,"said Michael Pumphrey, a wheat breeder at WSU. "One thing we haven't had was a foothold on wheats that are desirable for noodle production. Australia has controlled that market for decades."
About 10 years ago, researchers mixed a mother variety that Ryan Davis helped develop, called Diva, with an experimental line from the University of Idaho, Pumphrey said. Year after year, the Ryan variety kept outproducing other varieties in the test plots.
"It doesn't have to be sprayed too much because its resistant to disease and pests in the area. And it yields well," Pumphrey said. "The potential additional value that it is a premium market is a bonus on top of that."
While the wheat was first made available to growers in 2016, it's taken a couple years to build up enough seed to market it on a large scale. This past spring, farmers planted about 80,000 acres of Ryan before the plant seed sold out, Pumphrey said.
"There wasn't enough seed for the demand this year," he said.
In addition to the high yields, Ryan also produces its crop early for a spring wheat, which typically matures slower and must be harvested after winter wheat. The fast-maturing Ryan could save farmers costs if they can pick both at or about the same time, he said.
Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, which provides funds for WSU research, said Ryan is producing such good yields that farmers are going to grow the variety whether the noodle market develops or not.
"We've had a number of trade teams looking at it. They are very interested as a replacement for Australian noodle wheat," Squires said. Australia growers "are in a drought again this year. Supply is down, and the prices are high.
"Buyers are looking for an alternative," he continued. Ryan "is not going to satisfy the millions and millions of tons of noodle wheat needed in Asia, but it's something the industry is looking at."
For scale, Australia produces about 21 metric tons of white wheat. Growers in Oregon, Idaho and Washington produce about 5.9 million metric tons of soft white wheat, Squires said.
Currently, fields planted in the Ryan variety would make up about 4 million of about 218 million bushels of white wheat grown in Washington, Squires said.
However, the researchers continue to look for anything to help producers find a variety of wheat that could give value to a crop at a time when political decisions have either eliminated or threatened long-term trade agreements.
"There are some challenges, but I think the market system works. When there is something of value, there will be some interest," Squires said. "If we can add the niche market that adds value, that would be great."
Pumphrey said he's sure his former colleague, Ryan Davis, would be thrilled to know a variety of wheat he helped produce could become a viable alternative for Northwest farmers.
"He was a Coug through and through," Pumphrey said of Davis. "It's a shame that things get named for people when they pass, but he'd be thrilled. He'd be thankful and proud."