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Getting better at growing wheat: Minnesota researchers work with farmers

Though recently tilled, some fields near Red Lake Falls, Minn. on Monday, April 23, 2018 still showed significant moisture and, in some spots, standing water. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers on-farm research coordinators Lauren Prouix, left, and Melissa Geiszler speak about their recent research on Monday, April 23, 2018 in Red Lake Falls, Minn. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 2

RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. — Minnesota farmers are good at growing wheat; they've been doing it since the early 1850s. But there's always more to learn, and Minnesota Wheat is helping farmers do so.

"We hear from growers about their concerns and gear our trials to that," Lauren Prouix says. She and Melissa Geiszler are the Minnesota Wheat On-Farm Research Network's on-farm research coordinators

The grower-funded network, driven by farmers and using topics selected by them, conducts research on large plots and works on the conservation, fertility management, quality and profitability of wheat production in Minnesota.

Slated for study this crop season: seeding rate trials, top-dressing nitrogen, a variable rate nitrogen protein analysis, whether adding sulfur is helpful, a fungicide trial and whether plant growth regulators can help wheat plants' standability, Prouix and Geiszler say.

They expect to work with about 30 farmers on 40 to 50 fields. Many of the farmers will be in northwest Minnesota, where the state's wheat production is concentrated, but Geiszler and Prouix will work with producers elsewhere in the state, too.

The research is designed to be "doable" for producers to put into practice, and also to provide good, sound data, Prouix says.

Minnesota Wheat is the collective name for the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers and Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council. Both are based in Red Lake Falls, Minn., and share a staff of six people, says David Torgerson, executive director of the two organizations.

The Association works on lobbying and education, while the Council works on research and promotion.

"We try to cover all the bases for growers," Torgerson says.

Farm town home

Red Lake Falls, a farm town about 1,400 in northwest Minnesota, is in the heart of Minnesota wheat country.

State commodity groups typically have their headquarters in the state's largest city or capital. But Minnesota wheat growers wanted to keep Minnesota Wheat headquarters close to where most of them live.

"We've found that it's easier to serve them when we're in their backyard rather than St. Paul," Torgerson says, adding that Minnesota Wheat officials visit the capital when needed.

Once, wheat was grown across Minnesota. But today corn and soybeans dominate crop production in most of the state; wheat is concentrated in northwest Minnesota, where the climate is particularly well-suited to the crop.

"If you went back into the 1980s, wheat was grown pretty much throughout the state. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, the disease scab was devastating to wheat, and we saw wheat production move outside the southern part of the state. Also, pricing opportunities for corn and soybeans were better," Torgerson said.

Wheat, typically grown on 2.5 million to 2.7 million Minnesota acres in the 1980s, now is planted on about 1.1 million to 1.3 million acres annually. Most of the remaining acres are grown in rotation with soybeans, among other crops.

Minnesota Wheat, which at its peak had about 1,200 members, now has about 800, a number that has stabilized in the past few years, Torgerson says.

Minnesota Wheat's mission is helping those farmers survive and thrive.

"Wheat may not be sexy as corn or (soy)beans, but you still meet those growers who are excited about it and want to make it as profitable as possible on their farms. And working with those growers is exciting for us," Prouix says.

It's not too late for Minnesota farmers to participate in wheat research this crop season.

"If you're interested in learning more about what we're doing or about having an on-farm trial, you can contact us. We'd love to talk," Geiszler says.

Their contact information is available at www.smallgrains.org/staff.

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