Pulse Endowed Chair campaign puts industry in driver’s seat

Fred Muehlbauer
Fred Muehlbauer, retired USDA-ARS pulse breeder at Washington State University, inspects a field of legumes on the Palouse. He helped promote pulses and led breeding efforts at WSU for nearly 40 years. University pulse breeding and research would benefit from a new national endowed chair for pulse crops, says Muehlbauer. (CAHNRS photo)

The long, dry summer of 2015 was hard on chickpeas.

“Thank goodness we had a chickpea out there with a deep taproot,” said Phil Hinrichs.

Hinrichs is one to know. Owner of Hinrichs Trading Company, a fifth-generation Palouse seed processor, he is wholly focused on the Pacific Northwest’s growing chickpea industry. When the 2015 drought hammered yields by up to 40 percent, Hinrichs took notice.

He and Fred Muehlbauer, retired USDA-ARS pulse breeder at Washington State University, noticed something else: How WSU-bred, drought-resistant chickpeas handled the dry months better than conventional varieties.

“With the old varieties, it would have been a real disaster,” Muehlbauer added.

But new breeds like Sawyer and Sierra, with their strong defenses, gave an entire industry an edge, ensuring better yields.

Other dry years may be coming. Hinrichs, Muehlbauer, and a coalition of growers, processors and university researchers don’t want to sit still. They’ve thrown their weight behind a joint industry-WSU campaign for the first National Pulse Crop Endowed Chair.

Small plots of peas in a field.
Peas grow at WSU Spillman Agronomy Farm. WSU USDA-ARS researchers gauge performance, yield, and quality. Applied research at the university will be boosted by the addition of a proposed National Pulse Crop Endowed Chair. (Photo by Stephen Guy/WSU)

Building on Muehlbauer’s 40-year legacy, the chair would lead and expand a world-class pulse research program, addressing challenges facing the industry in the Northwest and beyond.

“WSU has been a global leader in pulse crop research for many years,” said Kim Kidwell, Acting Dean of the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). “Fred is the founding father of chickpea production in the Pacific Northwest.”

Since Muehlbauer’s arrival at WSU in 1969, pulses have become part of the rotation for many Northwest wheat farmers. Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s chickpeas are grown here—which means lots of pressure from disease, weeds and drought on a single region. The endowed chair would bring resources, leadership, new tools and better breeds.

When fully funded, the $3 million endowment will generate approximately $120,000 per year, a 4 percent payout.

“Every dime of that money will be spent on research to improve varieties that will eventually end up in grower’s hands,” Kidwell said.

The endowment dovetails with industry efforts to energize pulses. Timed to support the International Year of Pulse Crops in 2016, Northwest growers are expected to vote in March of 2016 on a three-year, 1 percent assessment to fund research and promotion. One third of that assessment funds WSU research.

Rebecca McGee in a field with a group of people.
WSU USDA-ARS researcher Rebecca McGee talks to farmers about spring pea and lentil advanced breeding trials near Fairfield, Wash. (Photo by Stephen Guy/WSU)

Having a champion for pulses will “bring the whole package together,” said Drew Lyon, WSU Endowed Chair for Small Grains. “Just about every wheat grower in the higher-rainfall areas is growing pulse crops, too.

“Endowments put the industry in the driver’s seat,” Lyon added. When growers have a problem—for example, with a troublesome new weed—they turn to him for faster results through applied research.

“As a land grant university, our strongest partnerships are with our stakeholders,” Kidwell said. “That’s the beauty of these endowments. They secure a long-term commitment to pulse research at WSU. Doing it together is a way to say, ‘We believe in this and we want it to go on forever.’”

“This industry has been good to us [growers and processors],” Hinrichs said. “But we cannot afford to lose any more time. It’s our turn to give back.”

• To donate to the National Pulse Crop Endowed Chair, contact Linda Bailey, CAHNRS Director of Development, at 509-335-7772 or lmbailey@wsu.edu.

• Learn more about crop breeding efforts in the Department of Crop and Soil Science.

• Learn more about research in the Department of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.