By Sarah Battenfield
Kansas State University
Wheat farming and cattle ranching are my family’s business. Some of my first memories involve going to our wheat field in Oklahoma and riding the combine with my dad. From a very early age, I helped my grandmother cook for the harvesters in the field, and as soon as I could reach the pedals, I helped move equipment and operated tractors and combines.
My father wanted me to go to college and pursue any other career because, honestly, farming is hard. He told me to remember the hard days of manual labor, how unmerciful the weather can be, and the challenges of dealing with the rains, diseases, and the markets. My experiences on our Oklahoma wheat farm, however, instilled in me a passion for agriculture and wheat, and for helping farmers worldwide suffer fewer bad years. That’s what led me to wheat breeding.
My ultimate goal is to work in wheat breeding in the public sector, with an international scope. With this in mind, I applied for and was awarded a grant from the Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP). This program allows me to be a “shuttle breeding student” in the breeding programs of Kansas State University (KSU) and CIMMYT-Mexico—my own version of Dr. Borlaug’s game-changing shuttle within Mexico. I’ve already spent two months working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT-Mexico) and will work there with the wheat breeders another five months before completing my Ph. D. This hands-on, international experience is an invaluable addition to my courses, research and field work in wheat breeding at KSU, the Kansas Wheat Improvement Center, and in the Kansas wheat fields.
The MBBISP grant funds my project with CIMMYT, where I am trying to develop genomic selection models to predict bread-making quality. This is very important to producers worldwide because no variety, even a very high-yielding variety, will be widely adopted if it cannot be used in the local market. I hope to demonstrate how genomic selection can change the way breeding is conducted for quality, particularly for breeding programs with fewer resources for quality testing. This will improve sustainability as we strive to increase wheat yields while still focusing on the grain’s vital importance as a staple food crop.
The MBBISP has been very personally and professionally rewarding. Scholars can tailor their own programs to meet personal goals. My grant has allowed me to travel across the United States and Mexico, where I have met and collaborated with people I never would have otherwise. Last year I attended presentations of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the World Food Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I also met the Borlaug family, many other MBBISP recipients, various World Food Prize winners, the Administrator of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the Director Generals of CIMMYT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Potato Center (CIP). I also met many scientists and students working for and with CIMMYT, several collaborators within the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, and several executives of Monsanto and other large agriculture companies. Now I have friends in this industry from every continent that grows wheat.
All of these connections are kept strong by the fact that we are all family with a common goal — helping to feed the world!
Sarah Battenfield became a Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholar in September 2012.