McFadden and Borlaug: Pioneering Rust-Resistant Wheat Back »

Above: Edgar McFadden, memorialized for providing “a bountiful harvest for his fellow farmers while to a hungry world he gave bread." ~Day County farmers

Written by Bob Fanning, former SDSU Extension Plant Pathology Field Specialist.

Plant diseases can have a devastating impact on human lifestyle (starvation, immigration, etc.). Late blight of potato, southern corn leaf blight, and stem rust in wheat are a few examples that will be quoted in history books for ages. 

The civilized world has cultivated wheat for centuries, and the prospect of golden fields of wheat provided fuel for much of the westward expansion of the United States in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. During a brief period of time in the Dakota Territory in the late 1800’s, wheat acreage increased from just over 100,000 acres to well over a million acres. During one year in the height of this heyday, 1897, it has been stated that two-thirds of the world’s wheat was shipped from present-day Eureka, SD, and wagons bearing the crop rolled in from as far as 75 miles away.

Wheat producers consider a number of traits when choosing wheat varieties to plant, including yield, test weight, maturity, straw strength, protein content, winter hardiness (winter wheat), height, end-use quality, and disease resistance. Of all the characteristics they consider, stem rust resistance is the one wheat producers don’t worry much about. The reason is simple; virtually all public and private wheat breeding programs place a high priority on stem rust resistance, and they don’t release varieties without a minimum level of resistance to the devastating disease.

Fortunately, today’s wheat breeders have a large gene pool of wheat germplasm to work with in pursuit of high-yielding, adaptable wheat varieties to continue to feed the world. Inherent in this gene pool is resistance to stem rust, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 1904 an epidemic of stem rust occurred, reducing production in South Dakota by 50%. For the next several decades, planted wheat acres were high, but rusts and scab plagued wheat farmers, nearly wiping out the crop in 1920. Wheat farmers across the world were experiencing similar challenges, causing poverty and hunger.

During this time, Edgar McFadden, born in 1891 near Webster, SD, was coming of age. In 1911, at 20 years of age, he watched a wheat crop with 40 Bu/acre potential produce 5 Bu/acre because of stem rust, yet the rust hadn’t bothered a patch of Yaroslav emmer, an ancient grain crop. When he enrolled in the Dakota Agricultural College, now South Dakota State University, that fall, he wondered if emmer crossed with wheat would provide rust resistance in the progeny.

At least two articles tell the story of Edgar McFadden and his contributions to the wheat industry, the Spring, 1999 issue of SDSU’s Farm and Home Research, "Hope" article and the November/December 2007 issue of the South Dakota Magazine's "A Grain of Hope" article. In short, McFadden successfully crossed emmer and the spring wheat variety, Marquis, to eventually produce the variety, Hope, which was resistant to both stem and leaf rusts. As SDSU spring wheat breeder Karl Glover states in the article, “A Grain of Hope”, plant breeding textbooks no longer mention McFadden, or only in passing. However, as former SDSU winter wheat breeder, Amir Ibrahim said in the article, many wheat varieties still have “Hope” wheat as a great-grandparent. Magazines of the 1940’s reported that perhaps 25 million people across the world escaped death by starvation due to bread derived from McFadden’s rust resistant wheat, “Hope”.

Another pioneer of rust-resistant and semi-dwarf wheat, Norman Borlaug, was born March 25, 1914 on a farm in Iowa. Borlaug received his schooling at the University of Minnesota, and he spent most of his life breeding rust-resistant and semi-dwarf wheat varieties. The semi-dwarf characteristic was recognized by Borlaug as being critical to produce wheat that didn’t lodge under high yields. Norman Borlaug is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by helping people across the world increase their wheat production. Norman Borlaug was a plant pathologist, but he also proved to be a good breeder.

The story of Norman Borlaug is well documented; including the film, “Freedom from Famine – The Norman Borlaug Story”; the book, “Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug,” written by Noel Vietmeyer; and numerous other films and books. A search of “Norman Borlaug” using any Internet search engine or on YouTube will produce a number of results.

Wheat farmers and anyone who eats products made from wheat should remember these and other pioneers who revolutionized the wheat industry.

For more information on wheat production in South Dakota, check out the iGrow Wheat: Best Management Practices for Wheat Production book available for online purchase at the iGrow Store.

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