Global Food

James Bradeen: Repositioning Minnesota’s Crop Sciences

By Elijah Ferrian

There are approximately 250,000 acres of oat grown in Minnesota, and almost half of that can easily be destroyed by a plant pathogen known as oat rust. It is a major problem affecting the oat and milling industries. Oat production is projected to increase globally over the coming years, and seeing as most of the North American production is happening right over the border in Canada, the University of Minnesota is motivated to bring more oat fields back home.

James Bradeen, professor and head of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences’ Department of Plant Pathology, is collaborating with industry partners to develop research to solve problems facing different commodities. One of which is the issue of oat crown rust. The oat rust initiative, given life by the public-private partnership of Oat Global, aims to resolve the issues with oat production through cooperative research and innovative integration of the various sectors within the oat industry.

Oat crown rust is caused by a fungal plant pathogen known as Puccinia coronata avenae. Most growing regions of oat have been affected by this pathogen at one point or another, and at its worst, oat rust has reduced crop yields by up to 40%, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Oat Global is what Bradeen and his team call an “innovation platform”. It connects the oat research community in the university and government sector to the various oat farmers, millers, food corporations, and consumers along the value chain. One of the major effects of this network is the reduction in duplication of research within the oat market.

“It’s [about] streamlining everything,” says Bradeen. “Getting people together from all parts of the oat industry and planning research. This community is very small, yet we’re representing 75% of the world’s oat researchers. Oat Global is an umbrella where initiatives like the oat rust initiative are being built.”

The oat rust initiative is comprised of 50 researchers and stakeholders that meet at least once a year. MnDRIVE funding allowed Bradeen and his team to forge new relationships across the oat industry in an innovative structure. This has led to the ability to compete for federal funding at a level that wasn’t previously possible. The university’s oat research community had been significantly reduced over the last 15 years due to retirement and reallocation of resources, and the MnDRIVE program paved the way for an influx of new researchers, like rust expert Melania Figueroa, who would not be working on this issue if not for the oat rust initiative.

Funding from PepsiCo, General Mills, Grain Millers, Inc., Richardson Milling, LaCrosse Milling, and the North American Millers’ Association (a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant) and an addition of six-to-eight faculty or adjuncts that are working on oat who weren’t previously, are just a few of the accomplishments that the oat rust initiative has achieved to date.

Minnesota has always been a leader in small grain production. It is no secret that a lot of the local industry was built on milling, yet oat production in particular has largely migrated outside of the United States and into Canada. One of the driving factors has been the impact of oat rusts. The oat rust initiative allows investment in research to help manage diseases for farmers. There is an increasing demand for oat products on a global scale, and this innovation of disease management through collaborative research gives major incentives to bring oat production back to Minnesota.

“As so much of our oat production has moved to Canada, there’s nobody to go to the federal level to ask for funding for more research,” Bradeen explains. “The basic knowledge on oat had a huge gap because few researchers were working on it, because funding wasn’t available, and this MnDRIVE funding has helped us grow quickly to take on this challenge.”

Bradeen and his team think their approach to building public-private partnerships has been very novel. They have been able to bring many industry voices to the table, with the outcome of establishing the university as a leader in oat research.

“There are approximately 17 other universities involved in this project, and the [University of Minnesota] is the organizing entity. This sets the stage for us to be a leader in a way we have historically not been.”