A quiet revolution is about to take place on the western edge of the NDSU campus. The vaulted ceilings and wide corridors of the stylish brick front for the new greenhouse complex taking shape there hint at the botanical possibilities waiting to be unlocked beneath its canopies. The new greenhouses, with the first phase slated to open in January, will extend the length of three football fields when finished. The complex will be one of the most sophisticated buildings on campus, with computers controlling the climates within individual greenhouses so plant breeders, pathologists and other scientists can control their experiments.
Think of the new greenhouse complex as both incubator and fortress. Greenhouses, of course, help accelerate the changes that plant breeders introduce to develop new crop varieties with beneficial traits. But the glass panes - actually clear acrylic plastic in the new houses - also act as a huge shield, since they play a vital role in developing resistance to disease and insect pests that, if unchecked, can wipe out crops and cost millions of dollars in losses, an economic disaster felt far beyond an unlucky farmer's decimated field.
It's worth remembering that most of the greenhouses on campus were built after an epidemic of stem rust devastated the wheat and barley fields of North Dakota in the 1950s. At the peak of the epidemic, in 1953 and 1954, a time when wheat was a much larger part of the state's cropping mix than it is today, 42 percent of the spring wheat harvest was lost to the fungal disease. Today, just two wheat varieties developed with help from NDSU greenhouses account for roughly half of all the spring wheat grown in the state, an example of how the genetic manipulations ultimately translate into dollars. "It's easily generating several hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue to the state," says Ken Grafton, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and dean of NDSU's College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources. "It has a huge economic impact to the state." Wheat, still king when it comes to North Dakota's cash crops, contributes $6.4 billion to the state's economy, an amount equal to a quarter of the state's economic base.
In an uncanny replay of history, just as the new greenhouses are nearing the start of service, a deadly new race of stem rust is drifting out of Africa into Asia and across the Red Sea to the Middle East. Agronomists fear it's only a matter of time before the winds carry the spores of the killer fungus to North America. Ug99 - so named because it was discovered in Uganda in 1999 - poses a lethal threat to wheat and barley in North Dakota, since varieties on the Great Plains haven't developed a resistance to the new fungus - handing plant breeders and pathologists a pressing item on their priority lists as they prepare research projects for the new greenhouses.
The electronic sign behind the front counter at Sun Prairie Grains in Minot, N.D., displays the daily prices of a dozen commodities commonly grown by farmers in the area. It also provides a good window into the explosive growth of crop diversity that has quietly transformed North Dakota agriculture. Not too many years ago, farmers around Minot, and throughout much of the state, grew perhaps five or six crops. And for a long, long time, just three cash crops - wheat, durum and barley - formed the base of North Dakota's crop agriculture.
Brad Haugeberg, Sun Prairie's general manager, is as amazed as anyone about the dizzying diversity of crops grown on the farms in his area, north-central North Dakota. "If you had an elevator with a hundred bins you'd be three short," he jokes. In fact, the elevators he manages don't have room for all of the crop varieties grown in the area. Some farmers use specialty storage for peas, lentils and chickpeas as well as Navy beans, buckwheat and mustard. "North-central North Dakota is probably as diverse as it gets," Haugeberg says. "That's ground zero for crop diversity."
Thanks to the advances in plant genetics, the surge in crop diversity is happening all over North Dakota, literally changing the cropping landscape of the state. Take soybeans, a specialty crop in North Dakota until a little more than a decade ago, which now rank behind wheat as the leading export crop, worth nearly half a billion dollars a year in direct economic impact. Cass County and neighboring Richland County, in fact, are among the leading soybean producers in the nation. Corn has enjoyed a similar boost in popularity with farmers, enabling corn ethanol manufacturing to gain a much larger presence in the state. "It's huge," Bill Wilson, NDSU distinguished university professor of agricultural economics, says of the financial ripples flowing from the increase in North Dakota's crop mix.
Diversity matters. For farmers, growing a variety of crop types buffers them against weather conditions that hurt one type of crop but favor another. Similarly when the price of wheat ebbs, the price of flax might just be soaring, providing a financial cushion for fluctuating commodity prices. Multiply that financial hedge across the state, and the numbers add up. "Diversity is a good thing, not only for the farmers themselves, but for the economy of North Dakota," Wilson says. "It protects us over time against the calamities that occur."
It does more than that, as Wilson goes on to explain. When the price of one crop goes up, that exerts upward pressure on other crops, which must provide returns to remain competitive - a commodities version of the rising tide that lifts all boats, at least in theory. That competition is called the battle for acres. "That's a good thing," Wilson explains, adding that a vigorous "battle" among crops for farmers' fields helps to nudge up prices. Played out over time, the story is told in the numbers that comprise North Dakota's economic portrait. Back in 1958, when North Dakota's crop agriculture was much more dependent on the old standbys - wheat, durum and barley - crop agriculture contributed $440 million to the state's economic base. In 50 years, as measured in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, crop agriculture had grown more than tenfold, to $4.9 billion.
Growth like that doesn't happen without farmers taking risks. The ultimate test of a new crop variety, after all, takes place in the farmer's field. "We have some very progressive farmers in the state," Grafton says. "We have some individuals who are not afraid to experiment." One of them is Jim Broten, a large grower near Dazey, N.D., and past president of the U.S. Grains Council, which develops crop export markets. He's seen a lot of changes in 45 years of farming. Advances in crop genetics have meant he saves money by using less fuel and fertilizer, and boosts revenues through higher yields. His corn yields, for instance, have doubled during the past 20 years. That makes Broten, who also is a mechanical engineer, a firm believer in the value of research.
"It makes farming more profitable," he says.
"It increases the bottom line. People don't realize that."
To protect that bottom line, Broten Farms is a showcase of diversification. He grows wheat, barley, sunflowers, canola, soybeans, corn, edible beans, potatoes, hay, sorghum and peas. He also raises livestock. As a kid, Broten heard about the devastating stem rust plague of the 1950s. He's acutely aware of how that disaster was the impetus for the old greenhouses still in use at NDSU. "We just need these facilities," he says, referring to the new greenhouse complex. The most impressive advances in plant genetics, in his view, have been in corn and soybeans. Both crops are relative newcomers to North Dakota. Ten years ago, Broten didn't grow soybeans; 25 years ago, he didn't grow corn, except for silage. He thinks that small grains, so important to so many North Dakota farmers, now must catch up in trait development to the precocious row crops. State-of-the-art greenhouses will help to make that happen. "We need these facilities to go after this kind of research," Broten says.
The economic benefits that farmers realize from advances in crop genetics are vitally important, he adds. That's because the cost of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides spiral upward, squeezing farmers, whose livelihoods depend on a low-margin business, and who must compete with growers around the globe. Farmers find themselves in a perpetual race, always looking to adopt new seed varieties, better equipment and more efficient methods to stay ahead of rising costs, not to mention threats posed by disease, such as new forms of stem rust. "We couldn't be in business," Broten says, "if we had the yields we had 10 years ago."
Beneath North Dakota's impressive proliferation of crops, like an intricate root system, are research programs that have grown significantly since the 1950s. NDSU now has 13 crop-breeding programs, compared to a handful five decades ago, and each program has grown larger and more sophisticated, requiring more greenhouse space. Even with the addition of temporary greenhouses on campus, researchers lack room enough for all the experiments they'd like to conduct. But not for long. "We're going to be doing things we would never have thought of doing in the past," says Richard Horsley, a barley breeder who was involved in planning the new greenhouses. "This is a huge enhancement for the Experiment Station."
Dean Grafton credits Gov. John Hoeven and the North Dakota Legislature with recognizing the importance of the greenhouse by investing in the facility, with an estimated price tag of $31 million. The first phase, opening in January 2010, cost $11.575 million to build, and the second phase is expected to cost a bit less, $11.45 million. Lawmakers will be asked in 2011 to support the third phase. "It's a wise investment by the state," Grafton says, noting that agriculture comprises an important part of the state's economic backbone. "It's something that's going to pay back to the state in the not-too-distant future. The payback will be tremendous."
Private support for the greenhouse complex also has been significant, says Peter Nygaard, assistant director of development for the NDSU Development Foundation. The North Dakota Soybean Council and American Crystal Sugar Company are two major donors, both grower constituencies that see the value in investing in research to adapt to new breeding opportunities and prepare for future threats farmers will face in the field. Monte Peterson, who farms near Valley City, serves as chairman of the research committee of the North Dakota Soybean Council, whose board members voted unanimously to make a sizeable contribution to the greenhouse project. "It should lead to some cutting-edge research," he says, taking a call from the cab of his sprayer, which he's using to apply pesticide to control spider mites on his soybean fields. "The facilities will give the opportunity to do some research that maybe hasn't been done before. Certainly it lends itself to producing better research with better results. I think most of us are optimistic about the research that will come. We're looking forward to the research that will come."
David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar, says the greenhouse will enable NDSU researchers to build upon a solid foundation of achievements. "My impression is for years and years at NDSU we've had many of the best people in the world," Berg says. "This project really kind of brings the infrastructure up to that level. We need the best research possible." An example of the ingenuity that comes from the labs at NDSU is a system that allows sugar beet growers to "micro-apply" herbicides, saving farmers money and helping the environment. "That was developed and completely invented at NDSU," Berg says. Developing disease resistance is a continuing need, he notes, and the greenhouse augments the research base right in the heart of sugar beet country, the Red River Valley. "This one really lines up with the needs and the wants of the sugar beet industry."
The project's second and third phases will double the size of the current "head house," the brickwork front of the greenhouse complex, including offices, preparation rooms and other facilities that serve the greenhouses themselves, which will extend to the west, toward test plots. The greenhouses will occupy about 60,000 square feet, more than a quarter of the footprint of the Fargodome, doubling the available greenhouse capacity on campus. Even with all that added room, greenhouse space remains at a premium. The complex will be managed with a scrutinizing eye for "managed utilization," meaning researchers will have to win approval for space, Grafton says. "This is very, very high quality space," he says. "We want to make sure we get the most bang for our buck." Safeguards are built in. Alarms will warn when the power fails, for example, triggering backup generators to keep temperatures from spiking or plunging and killing plants - ruining time-consuming experiments. "That's going to be a big help to us," Horsley says.
Sophisticated controls will regulate climate and other variables - 21st century technology instead of 1950s technology that will allow researchers to better investigate critical issues, such as carbon sequestration and invasive species. Importantly, some of the new space will provide bio-safety containment protection, allowing researchers to work with dangerous pathogens, including the likes of Ug99, which could cause catastrophic damage if released to the environment. "I think it'll be the most complicated building on campus when it's completed," Horsley says.
Of course, greenhouses aren't the only tools that have grown in sophistication. Phil McClean, a plant molecular geneticist at NDSU, says the new greenhouse will be an important upgrade in the chain of collaborative research that extends from the laboratory to the test field at the Center of Excellence for AgBiotechnology. Today plant breeders can do their work much more efficiently by using DNA markers to zero in on the genes that provide beneficial traits, eliminating much of the "trial and error" plant crosses that traditional breeding required. That means researchers have to test far fewer breeding lines than they once did. The use of molecular markers is just one of the techniques that have been behind the advances in plant genetics at NDSU during the past 15 years, and especially the past five years, McClean says. "The greenhouse is just another example," he adds. "We're second to no one in the U.S. in terms of infrastructure. There's no one who matches the number of breeding programs and crops at NDSU. That is a fact."
The continuing spread of Ug99 - Kenya in 2001, Ethiopia in 2003, Sudan and Yemen in 2006, Iran in 2007 - has been called a ticking time bomb for the world's wheat crop. Unchecked, experts say, the fungus could destroy 80 percent of the global wheat crop. After several years of intensive research, scientists have identified half a dozen genes that could help protect crops. Using traditional breeding methods, resistant crop varieties are eight to 12 years away. The emerging threat of Ug99, and its potential to sow famine, highlights the need for aggressive research, many agree. The containment of the 1950s stem rust epidemic, however, shows the challenge can be met, scientists say. "North Dakota might not have wheat today if there were not a major effort in annihilating that," McClean says, referring to a collaboration between researchers at NDSU and U.S. Department of Agriculture labs in Fargo and St. Paul. "That basically saved North Dakota."
On a less sobering note, Wilson says, the promise of further advances in crop genetics is among a host of factors pointing to continued upward pressure on commodities prices for the next six to eight years. That's good news for North Dakota's farmers - and the state's economy. Farmland prices in North Dakota have risen during the past decade, reflecting the robust strength of the state's cropping system and sometimes bucking a national trend. Meanwhile, Wilson says, global population growth and climate change are among the forces that will increase the need for genetically enhanced crops. Grafton agrees. "It's going to require us to be as productive as possible in order to continue to feed the world," he says. So NDSU's new greenhouse complex has a daunting to-do list awaiting its completion.
But that's nothing new.