Wheat is Washington State University’s latest cash crop.
On Friday the Washington Wheat Commission planted $1.5 million on the school to pay for more farming research.
The individual winner of the donation is plant pathologist R. James Cook for whom the money will buy an endowed chair. Cook came to the university in 1965 to teach and research plant pathology. Now he’ll lead scientific teams in researching direct seeding of wheat, barley and other crops.
While made to the school, the donation also is an investment for the environment. Cook’s specialty is conservation - or no-till - farming systems which are considered more nature-friendly than the standard practices.
With no-till farming, growers put their seed into the ground without tilling the soil or burning the stubble from the previous harvest. The practice of directly seeding the un-tilled soil retains the ground moisture.
“It saves soils, makes for cleaner water and improves wildlife habitat,” Cook said.
Though no-till farming sounds great, farmers have a few kinks to work out. Growers who use no-till practices have trouble fighting weeds and root disease, “and getting a no-till planter that stays on these hills,” Cook said.
No one has come up with the perfect planter, but one that works could cost as much as $120,000, said Hank Suess of Colfax. He won’t no-till farm now because of the cost and threat of disease.
But an investment in no-till farming now will pay off in the long run, Cook said. “It cuts costs. It’s a cheaper way to farm,” he said. “It also has a higher yield potential because there’s more water in the soil.”
Last January, Washington’s wheat producers decided their top priority was research into directseeding farming, said Karl Felgenhauer, chairman of the Washington Wheat Commission. “And we are very fortunate to have a scientist that is known and respected throughout the world to lead it.”
The endowment will allow Cook to step above his focused research of plant root disease and attack problems associated with the direct seeding.
“It’s going to allow me to take a broader approach,” he said. “There’s so much more to it.”
WSU President Sam Smith accepted the $1.5 million check Friday at the Washington Association of Wheat Growers conference.
The convention continues at the Ridpath Hotel in Spokane through Sunday.