Kansas Wheat celebrates 3 years of innovation

Posted January 25, 2016

“What’s up with those greenhouses in the back?”

That is a question which pops up every now and then between Kansas Wheat staffers and motorists who are just passing by the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center (KWIC). What these passersby don’t know is the greenhouses are an important part of the Center. Not only do they provide a welcoming glow to those driving east on Kimball Avenue in the early morning hours or late at night, but they also house the future of Kansas agriculture. 

While most travelers and tailgaters may only see the outward facing 10,000 square feet of office space, what is commonly missed is the 15,000 square feet of laboratory space and 10,000 square feet of greenhouse space. A common exclamation of visitors entering the building is, “It’s so much larger on the inside!”

“Farmers investing in the future” was a common theme during the planning and execution of the project. Construction of the KWIC marked the largest single research investment that Kansas wheat farmers have ever made, and that research is still at the heart of the facility. This venture for the future of wheat came at a time when private research in wheat was limited.

 “One goal of the innovation center was to raise that flag that said, ‘Ok. We’re ready. We’re willing to put our money into this research and you should, too,’” said Aaron Harries, Vice President of Research and Operations at Kansas Wheat. 

Kansas Wheat helps to fund around 20 wheat research projects every year. Topics of research range from preserving and exploring wheat’s genetic diversity with the Wheat Genetics and Genomics Resource Center (WGRC) to developing a celiac-safe variety of wheat.

“The Kansas Wheat Innovation Center provides the opportunity to expand our partnerships with both private and public researchers,” said Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat. “That is exciting for Kansas farmers.”

Recent successes of research funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission include progress towards stopping four of the hardest hitting wheat viruses - wheat streak mosaic virus, triticum mosaic virus, soilborne mosaic virus and barley yellow dwarf virus – literally in their reproductive tracks. The KWIC also provided the opportunity to grow the WGRC. The organization devoted to preserving and researching genetic diversity from wild wheat relatives from around the globe has been able to expand since it found its new home at the KWIC. The program is now the heart of a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center. According to Harries, this means multiple “big time players” are able to invest in research while partnering with public researchers at Kansas State University, Colorado State University and more, in order to accelerate wheat research. 

The base mission of the KWIC is to provide wheat farmers with the tools they need to be the best at raising their wheat crop. Having a dedicated space for this research helps put wheat improvement on a fast-track. Prior to the KWIC, there was limited capacity for wheat breeding in Kansas, but the Center has brought more facilities, more equipment and more collaborators to the table, and the end result is a strengthened Kansas wheat industry. 

“The first three years have been getting this place up and running,” said Harries. “The next five to ten years are about the results that will come from those efforts.”

While research is a topic that is on everyone’s mind at KWIC, it’s not the only benefit from the facility. During the last three years, thousands of visitors have toured the Center to learn about Kansas’ most endearing crop. These tourists range from local Girl Scout troops to international corporate executives and from Arkansas 4-Hers to government officials. 

“The innovation center has been a huge educational opportunity for the public on the complexity of wheat research and the history of wheat,” said Gilpin. “We’ve had thousands of visitors come through here and learn about what Kansas farmers do, as well as what they’ve invested in.”

by Jordan Hildebrand