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An era is ending in the grain fields of Oregon. Warren Kronstad, 67, retired from full-time work in December and has begun phasing out most of his far-flung research.

The Oregon State University plant geneticist, or "wheat breeder" to most farmers, is the most prolific and well-known practitioner of his trade the state has ever known. He and collaborators developed a large percentage of the grain varieties grown in the state in recent decades.

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OSU cereal breeder Warren Kronstad, left, in Mexico in 1995 inspecting experimental wheat varieties with Sanjaya Rajaram, of CIMMYT, the research center that spearheaded the Green Revolution. Photo: Andy Duncan

This includes "Stephens," a soft white wheat variety still commercially viable an astounding 20 years after it was released to farmers. Most commercial wheat varieties lose effectiveness after four or five years because of the attacks and adaptations of diseases and pests.

"I'd be hard-pressed to think of a U.S. variety that's been as successful," says Rollie Sears, a nationally known wheat breeder at Kansas State University and one of Kronstad's former students.

Stephens dominated Oregon's wheat acreage for more than a decade. It still makes up about 40 percent of all the wheat produced in the state.

Economists estimate the high-yielding Stephens and other Kronstad varieties have added millions of dollars a year to the Oregon economy. The impact stretched from communities in the Willamette Valley and eastern and southern Oregon to the Port of Portland, which much of the grain passed through on the way to foreign markets.

"Warren has the knack and the tact to find the funds and get the research done," says long-time eastern Oregon wheat grower Frank Tubbs. "I wish he could clone himself."

Besides teaching thousands of U.S. students during his 40 years at OSU, he has trained graduate students from most of the wheat-producing regions of the world.

These foreign students returned to their homelands to work on or lead breeding programs, or joined international research centers. In international wheat research circles, OSU-trained breeders eventually earned the nickname "the Oregon Mafia."

During Kronstad's career the OSU breeding program swapped genetic material with foreign programs around the globe, cooperating with more than 125 countries in an effort to improve wheat varieties in Oregon and abroad.

"I've worked with many U.S. universities," says Sanjaya Rajaram, head of the wheat genetic improvement program for the famed International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT for short), headquartered in Mexico City.

"Warren was one of a few top breeders in the United States who was in the field at the right time," says Rajaram. "Some weren't. They'd send their technicians. And he was one of a few agricultural scientists with a vision of developing counties."

During his four-decade career in Oregon, Kronstad also worked closely with cereal breeder Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for work at CIMMYT that contributed to the Green Revolution in cereal production in nations such as India.

In February both Borlaug and Rajaram spoke at a "W.E. Kronstad Honorary Symposium" at OSU, and the next day at a luncheon for Kronstad at The Dalles. The events were sponsored by OSU, the Oregon Wheat Commission and the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

In a campus presentation, Borlaug described Kronstad as "one of the greatest wheat scientists and most effective teachers of this century."

Rajaram predicted that genetic material developed in an Oregon-Mexico "shuttle breeding project" he and Kronstad collaborated on for many years is going to have major impact in the developing world in the years to come.

Kronstad, noted for the long hours he put in cross-breeding and evaluating potential grain varieties in fields across Oregon and in other countries, grew up on "a little stump farm" five miles east of Bellingham, Washington.

"I learned very early from my father that you have to work hard to earn your pay," he says.

So it's not surprising that as Oregon's most prolific wheat breeder steps away from his job, and his replacement Jim Peterson, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture wheat breeder from Nebraska, gears up, Kronstad is concerned about work he considers not quite finished. He has a contract with the university to work about 1,000 hours next year.

"We've got a soft white wheat variety named Weatherford that'll be released next fall that has resistance to major foot rot diseases. We've never had this before," he says. He also mentions hard white wheat varieties in the research pipeline with promising resistance to serious diseases that plague growers.

"But I don't intend to go on indefinitely with this, except for maybe a little international work," he says. "I don't want to get in Jim Peterson's way."