Kansas comes by its moniker the “Wheat State” for good reason. It’s the largest wheat-producing state in the country. With deep roots in crop production and as a growing hub of crop science, grain science and milling entities, the Greater Manhattan region is poised to be an international nexus for future growth, thanks in large part to the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center (KWIC).
“We get a lot of international visitors who come to Kansas to see where their wheat is coming from. We’re able to show them how farmers have invested in providing a high-quality product for customers globally and how we’ve fostered collaborations between academia and industry. It blows their minds,” said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations for the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. “If other ag science and plant science businesses want to relocate to the Manhattan region, we want to be part of that.”
The KWIC is a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the research and advancement of wheat. Built by the Kansas Wheat Commission with $15 million in funds from Kansas wheat growers through the Kansas Wheat Checkoff, the center is the single largest investment by wheat farmers in the nation.
“It’s a unique setting,” Harries said. “The center was founded to improve and accelerate wheat genetics research. It’s created a collaborative environment and we’ve seen some amazing relationships develop here.”
Since opening its doors in 2012, the center has continued to grow. The Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers and Kansas Wheat Alliance have been joined by other tenants, including:
- Wheat Genetics Resource Center (WGRC): The WGRC, operated by Kansas State University (which owns the land the center is on), is a gene bank that preserves the seeds of ancient wheat relatives. These wild ancestors of today’s varieties may hold the key to desirable genetic traits for future crops. Seeds are collected across the globe, carefully catalogued and stored in a temperature-controlled facility. Scientists periodically propagate the seeds to ensure their ongoing viability for future genetic research and breeding.
- Heartland Plant Innovations (HPI): HPI is a plant biotechnology company that provides advanced breeding services. They take plants with beneficial traits like drought- or pest-resistance that can help farmers increase yields and improve quality, then breed them to perpetuate those traits. Using a process called doubled haploid production, HPI replicates (or doubles) a single plant’s DNA (instead of cross-pollinating genes from another plant) to grow a new plant. The process significantly decreases the time it takes to get new seed varieties to market.
- Grain Craft: Grain Craft is the third-largest milling company in the U.S. Their lab in the center is focused on testing and quality assurance. They also work closely with K-State researchers and students to improve wheat and flour quality and drive innovation in the industry.
“We’re not competitors,” Harries explained. “We offer a toolbox of advanced wheat breeding resources. What each tenant does is complementary. Everything from wheat genetics research to milling — the entire production line from researcher to farmer to end user — is represented here.”
One successful relationship to come out of the center is between the WGRC and the public-private partnership Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC). IUCRC partners include regional and national entities from academia and industry. Leveraging the WGRC’s library of ancient seeds, the WGRC/IUCRC consortium’s goal is to enhance the global wheat supply to meet the needs of a growing population.
“The partnership revolves around the collection of seeds from ancient wheat relatives, essentially trying to treasure hunt for genes that could be of value in the modern day,” Harries explained. “The center provided an opportunity for that partnership.”
Another example is the collaboration between K-State and Grain Craft. As K-State scientists develop new varieties of wheat, they can consult with Grain Craft to get an industry perspective on which varieties will fare better in the consumer market. Similarly, Grain Craft can provide input on desirable traits as well as enhance the talent pipeline of future grain and milling professionals.
“It’s a really good sounding board to have that industry partner right here, to make sure our farmers are growing the right varieties of wheat that the end user wants. It’s a very powerful relationship,” Harries said.
An important link between researcher and consumer is HPI, which can get new seeds to market in less time than traditional breeding methods. This niche business provides specialized fee-for-service techniques to wheat breeders around the world.
As the KWIC celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2022, Harries is looking ahead to the next 10 years. He sees potential for more opportunities to advance the wheat industry through the KWIC.
“There’s a big spotlight on wheat research right now. We’re always looking to add value for our farmers and we’ve got our sights set high on some research using new tools like gene editing. We’ll see a lot of breakthroughs in the next 10 years and a lot of that will be happening right here,” he said.
Although the center does not have available space, the nearby Edge Collaboration District and other commercial properties are conveniently accessible.
To learn how your business can benefit from establishing a location in the Greater Manhattan, Kansas, region, please contact the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership.