The University of Alberta has signed a new core funding agreement with the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition (CWRC), which represents provincial wheat commissions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Under the new deal announced May 3, the U of A wheat breeding program headed by Dean Spaner will receive core funding worth $2 million over about five years.
The producer-funded investment will support breeding activities aimed at developing new and more productive wheat varieties in the Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) and Canadian Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) wheat classes.
The new agreement took effect May 1 and will remain in place until Dec. 31, 2025.
“This agreement with the U of A is a natural fit as the CWRC recognizes the importance of having a strong breeding network across Western Canada,” said CWRC chair Fred Greig.
“Dr. Spaner and the U of A wheat breeding program have a history of successfully developing and commercializing wheat varieties with strong agronomic packages for prairie farmers.”
CWRC president Lauren Comin said the U of A program has proven its ability to develop improved wheat cultivars that are particularly suited to growers in Alberta’s Parkland growing region.
“The U of A program has really taken off in the last few years,” Comin said.
“Since (2013) they have… released 13 CWRS (wheat varieties) and one CPSR variety….”
“That’s a strong showing… and the varieties are being taken up by producers, especially in the Parkland region….”
The U of A program has developed a reputation for creating wheat varieties that are suited to areas with shorter growing seasons.
In recent years, the program has registered some of Western Canada’s earliest-maturing CWRS wheat varieties including Go Early, Thorsby, Paratha, Jake and Tracker, and has helped growers in short-season production areas reduce their production risk.
“That’s something that we’ve had issues with over the past few seasons is inclement weather before we’ve been able to harvest,” Comin said.
“Dean’s program is the northern most breeding program in Canada, and because of that, he’s able to have a really unique focus on some of those traits that growers in the north need.”
Under the new agreement, the U of A program aims to develop and register three to five new wheat varieties, focusing on earlier maturity, shorter straw and improved resistance to fusarium headblight (FHB).
In addition to delivering new wheat varieties, the agreement specifies other key objectives, which include delivering one to three germplasm distributions, expanding infrastructure and breeding capacity at the U of A, and training a minimum of three graduate students.
The University of Alberta program is the only CWRS wheat breeding program in Alberta, and is the only program in the province that can grant graduate degrees in plant breeding.
The agreement with the U of A marks a significant increase from the previous funding agreement, which expired last week (May 7).
The previous core funding agreement, facilitated by the Western Grains Research Foundation, was valued at $800,000 over five years.
The funding increase was deemed necessary due to significant progress and potential growth of the wheat breeding program.
In a May 6 interview, Spaner said the new CWRC agreement will provide financial stability for the U of A program and will allow it to expand its breeding capacity significantly.
Recent increases to core funding agreements for university-based breeding programs are a welcome development, he added.
“This is a huge increase,” he said.
“It’s about 700 percent more than what we had for 15 years under the original checkoff funds.”
He called the CWRC agreement “a much-appreciated vote of confidence.”
He described the Peace River region as a large and productive area that is often underrepresented.
“We are the most northerly program for CWRS in Western Canada and because of that, we have a natural niche and affinity, I guess, to the north.”
The Canadian Wheat Research Coalition was formed in 2017 to co-ordinate producer-backed funding agreements for wheat breeding programs that benefit western Canadian growers.
Coalition members include the Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission and Manitoba Crop Alliance — provincial commissions that collect producer checkoffs on wheat and allocate funds to initiatives in areas such as market development, grower advocacy and research.
The U of A agreement is the third core finding agreement to be signed by the CWRC in the past 16 months.
In October 2020, the coalition signed an agreement worth more than $22.6 million over five years in support of wheat breeding programs at Agriculture Canada.
In January 2020, it committed more than $9.6 million over five years to the wheat breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon.