Putting royalties to work

WSU breeders put royalties to work for the future of Washington wheat

By Seth Truscott

New wheat varieties emerging from Washington State University (WSU) are adding a growing stream of stable support for breeding advances that ultimately benefit the grower.

Established more than a decade ago, WSU’s licensed wheat royalties are helping improve farm facilities, train the next generation of scientists and growers, and, for the first time this year, enhancing grower assessments to address wider research priorities.

“Royalties have become a critical source of support for public wheat breeding programs,” said Professor Rich Koenig, chair of the recently established WSU Grain Royalty Advisory Committee. “The reality is that states aren’t funding research the way they did decades ago. Royalties help modernize our facilities, bring down our request for checkoff dollars, and help WSU maintain its unique, locally responsive program.”

The decision to begin charging wheat royalties, made by WSU in consultation with the Washington Grain Commission (WGC), was not taken lightly. The university held off for years but, as private and public peers across the nation implemented similar fees while state support dwindled, ultimately saw the move as necessary for the future.

“Our work is vitally important to Washington agriculture,” Koenig said. “We breed wheat for a diversity of local climates, pests, diseases, end-use qualities, and with the final customer in mind, factors that might be overlooked by private company breeders. In research and education, we’re thinking not just about today, but the next generation, and the next 100 years.”

An important decision

In May of 2012, the WGC supported a WSU-sponsored initiative to license its future wheat variety releases. Working with the commission, WSU established a royalty of 2 cents per pound of certified seed sold. That charge is in the low-to-middle range compared to similar wheat-releasing institutions.

Starting with the Otto wheat variety, royalties from dozens of new releases allowed the university to fund its $5 million portion of the $15 million Plant Growth Facility expansion, opened in 2015 and paid off in 2023. That state-of-the-art facility, which cut several years off the time involved in selecting and releasing new varieties, helps retain world-class scientists and attract top students at WSU.

“These revenues illustrate the foresight that WSU and the Washington Grain Commission had in implementing a royalty structure,” said WGC CEO Casey Chumrau. “Thanks to its own successful varieties, the breeding program now has another steady form of funding to reinvest in the future of our industry, and allows us the flexibility to address new challenges as they arise.”  

Commercialization is vital to public plant breeding programs, said Jim Moyer, a Dayton wheat grower and committee member for research with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. As former director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center, Moyer joined the university at the time when royalties were being introduced.

“Breeding programs are among the most expensive programs, as well as one of the most tangible assets, for a land-grant university,” he said. “Royalties are a measure of their varieties’ relevance.”

Moyer was fully supportive of the direction that WSU commercialization efforts were headed, based on his experience at similar institutions as well as what he knew from widespread grower use of patented varieties in the region, including on his farm.

“I was comfortable with the need for universities to follow this path and for farmers to access the best varieties,” he said. “Royalties from WSU varieties are now significant. They ensure that the breeding programs continue to be nationally recognized well into the future and are a leading resource for the next generation of plant breeders.”

Freeing up grower assessments

The WSU Faculty Manual lays out how royalties are spent. The bulk of royalties, 70%, support wheat breeding research and variety development. Smaller portions, 10 percent each, go to the team that bred each variety, WSU’s Agricultural Research Center, and the WSU Office of Commercialization for intellectual property protection.

Current royalty income will soon help redirect grower-assessed funds to other high priority research projects, while allowing university scientists to develop new initiatives. Beginning in summer 2024, WSU’s wheat breeding team will reduce their annual request to the Washington Grain Commission by $250,000. Royalties are slated to pay for certain staffing and facility costs as well as Hessian fly screening.

The college recently established the Grains Royalty Advisory Committee to ensure best use of royalty funds. Chaired by Koenig, the committee includes two producers—Brian Cochrane, Washington Grain Commissioner for District 5 and a farmer in the low-rainfall region, and Kurt Druffel, a Pullman grower—as well as the two winter and spring wheat breeders and the associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

“We want to be transparent about how royalties are used,” Koenig said. “Through the committee, we will maintain our great partnership with the wheat industry and ensure they weigh in on the work.”

The committee begins meeting in early 2024 to consider the next best uses, among them research and education efforts as well as equipment and deferred maintenance at the Lind, Davenport, Pullman, and Othello experimental farms.

Launching this summer with royalty support, the new Washington Wheat Fellows program will financially support undergraduate students who want to learn by working in the science of grains.

“Students are more competitive when they’ve had experience in hands-on learning,” said Arron Carter, O.A. Vogel Endowed Chair in Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics. “This benefits our programs by recruiting, training, and keeping excellent students.”

Fellows will join graduate student and faculty mentors in the winter and spring wheat breeding programs, taking part in hypothesis-driven research while growing their career potential.

“These students are more than just employees: they’re working on behalf of Washington growers,” Koenig said. “We want them to reflect on what it means to be a Washington Wheat Fellow.”

Through these endeavors, the team aims to maintain the university’s 100-year legacy of service to Washington state agriculture.

“We’re continuing the legacy of pioneers like Orville Vogel and William J. Spillman,” Koenig said. “Thanks to our partners, we will keep bringing top-quality, locally adapted wheat for Washington.”


To learn about opportunities with the Washington Wheat Fellows program, contact Arron Carter, O.A. Vogel Endowed Chair in Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics, at ahcarter@wsu.edu.

To learn more about WSU’s Grain Royalty Advisory Committee, contact Professor Rich Koenig at richk@wsu.edu

Seth Truscott

Seth Truscott

Seth Truscott is a public relations and communications coordinator for the Washington State University College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, and a contributing author for Wheat Life Magazine.

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