Warren Kronstad: Mission No. 1 – Feed a Hungry World

From the first time he met renowned wheat breeder Orville A. Vogel, Warren Kronstad’s professional mission was clear – help feed a hungry world.

Warren Kronstad’s family
Warren Kronstad’s family.

Considered among the most influential wheat breeders in the world, Kronstad’s work focused on developing high-yield wheat varieties that could be successfully grown in a variety of environments around the globe. He was an early innovator in the field of biometrical modeling to help in the parental selection and genetic variations within different populations of wheat, cited as one of the major accomplishments in plant breeding during the 20th Century.

“Very few have risen to Kronstad’s level in helping to combat world hunger,” wrote former WSU Professor Robert Nilan in a letter nominating Kronstad for the WSU Alumni Achievement Award, which he received in 2000. He died that year from pancreatic cancer.

A Washington native, Kronstad was born in March 1932 to Ervind and Valentine Kronstad in Bellingham. He attended Bellingham High School from 1947 to 1950. Following military service, he studied agronomy and genetics at Washington State University from 1954 to 1959, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degree. After earning his master’s he worked with Vogel in developing the first semi-dwarf wheat varieties in the United States, the beginning of the “Green Revolution.”

“After he got out of the Navy, he came to WSU looking at a science degree, but somehow he ended up taking a class from Dr. Vogel, and that was key from then on,” said Kronstad’s wife, Carol. “He just worshipped Orville Vogel.”

Kronstad earned his doctoral degree from Oregon State University in 1963 and remained on the faculty there for the remainder of his career. He was named Distinguished Professor there in 1989, a position he held until he retired. He also served as project leader for the USAID/OSU/CIMMYT International Wheat Germplasm Enhancement Cooperative Program for many decades. It was that international work that defined Kronstad’s career.

“The pinnacle of his career was what he did to help address world hunger, increasing wheat yields in Third World countries,” Carol Kronstad said. “All of his international work was in those countries. He saw the very worst there was to see as far as hunger.”

Daughter Nancy remembers her father admonishing his children to “finish everything on your plate because there are children starving in, name a country, and I was there last week and saw it.”

Daughter Robin also remembers her father’s unorthodox methods of bringing home wheat varieties from the places he visited.

“Dad always had pants with cuffs,” she said. “On one trip to China in 1976, he came home and Mom started to wash his pants. He stopped her because he’d been caching wheat seed in the cuffs of his pants and the lining of his coat.”

Kronstad brought the countries of the world to OSU through the more than 100 graduate students he trained during his career. With a reputation for demanding the best of both his graduate students and children, he also was known for his compassion and understanding of cultural differences.

“Our dinner tables on Sunday were often international,” Robin said.

Kronstad’s family agrees that he valued his WSU education, academically and otherwise.

“First and foremost, he was Mr. Football,” Nancy said. “It was always, ‘How are my Cougs doing?’ He always wanted to be a football coach, and he ran his research unit based on teamwork; it all flowed back to teamwork.”

By Kathy Barnard