AMARILLO — The father of modern wheat varieties developed by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. Kenneth B. Porter of Amarillo, will be honored at the Panhandle Ag Day near Bushland on May 22.
Porter, now in his 50th year of research and service to Texas agriculture, officially retired from the Texas A&M System in 1988. However, the longtime wheat breeder who’s now emeritus professor of agronomy, hasn’t stopped working to develop wheat varieties designed to put profits into the pockets of farmers.
Porter arrived at the Bushland Experiment Station in 1947 and began changing the nature of wheat production by first altering the plant itself. Back then, wheat grew tall — as high as farmers’ shirt pockets, some producers recall. The high winds and hail traditional to the Plains flattened wheat in the field, and wiped out profits for farmers with alarming regularity. But bread on America’s tables had to be, Porter said.
With a vision to improve stalk stability and low yields, Porter’s 50-year career has had the greatest impact on producer profits, and ultimately the price of bread itself.
In a brief half-century, the work by this unassuming scientist has helped solve these and many other problems associated with one of the world’s most widely grown foodstuffs. He has produced not only the first, but many subsequent generations of semi-dwarf, stronger- stalked and high-yielding varieties.
Today, more than 20 percent of the hard, red winter wheats found in America are credited to Porter and a group of colleagues who started their quiet revolution back in the late 1940s. At that time, many producers and scientists alike doubted the job could be done.
According to scientist colleagues, each of Dr. Porter’s many varieties has been a landmark — the development of the first shorter- stalked, hard red winter wheat virtually eliminated yesterday’s reliance on the taller, more vulnerable varieties.
Just two decades ago, Porter’s efforts resulted in the most successful hard red winter wheat varieties grown across the Great Plains. His work helped solve the farmer’s need for a true winter- hardy, tough-grained plant that wasn’t sensitive to day lengths.
“In an era when new wheats have a life expectancy of about three years, Dr. Porter’s wheats still are grown as widely as those of any other origin,” said Dr. David Worrall, a breeder at the Vernon Experiment Station.
“Today’s scientists and wheat breeders credit Porter as doing more to stabilize wheat production and increase farm profitability than any other American wheat breeder,” he added.
“He is the individual most responsible for the success of wheat in Texas. In addition, there are great benefits of his research throughout the Great Plains,” said Dr. Edward Hiler, vice chancellor and dean of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in College Station.
A Kansas State University wheat breeder, Dr. Rollie Sears of Manhattan, said Porter’s wisdom and guidance are appreciated by scientists across the Great Plains.
“Every breeder has been a student of Dr. Porter’s at one time or another,” he said. Porter is a Kansas native, earning one of his three degrees from that university. On a visit to his alma mater shortly after Sears’ arrived there in 1980, the renowned wheat breeder invited the young scientist to Texas.
“Kenny stressed the importance of visiting Texas’ wheat production regions and breeding nurseries there. It’s a trip I make even to this day,” Sears said. The geographic and climatic diversity allow breeders to learn much about the wheat developed and grown across the Great Plains.
Porter remains a vital part of the Station’s small grains research group composed of scientists around the state, according to Amarillo’s Experiment Station director, Dr. John Sweeten.
“The varieties in development now, and our most recently released line, TAM 110 possessing biotype E green bug resistance, are linked directly to Kenny Porter’s research. Today, his experience spans a half century in small grains breeding and has been of tremendous value to producers. For the scientist, his work is a virtual road map to successfully meeting the needs of the American farmer,” Sweeten said.
While Porter’s wheat varieties were initially tailored to Texas High Plains production, farmers in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico also asked for seed. Even today, TAM 107, another Porter variety, is grown over a very large acreage many years after its debut.
The scientist was honored recently with two major awards for distinguished service to wheat production. The first, presented by the Texas Wheat Producers Board and Producers Association last December, cited Porter and his colleagues with the small grains research group for their contributions to Texas agriculture and excellence in wheat breeding.
“Our organizations have long recognized Dr. Kenneth Porter as one of the most prolific wheat breeders anywhere. Periodically, he has had more acres of his varieties under cultivation in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas than any other wheat breeder,” said Bill Nelson, TWPBPA executive vice president of Amarillo.
The second honor was presented in March by the Texas Seed Trade Association. The organization of industry seedsmen commemorated Porter’s 50-year career with its “distinguished member” recognition and their prestigious “First the Seed” award.
According to Dr. Ed A. Runge, head of Texas A&M’s soil and crop sciences department, supporting students has been a lifelong project for both Dr. Porter and his wife Marion.
“The Porters are two of the nicest people one could ever meet,” Runge said.. “Their generosity has endowed the Kenneth and Marion Porter Undergraduate Scholarship (in the department). Their legacy and contributions to society in general and wheat improvement in particular will continue to be a model for all of us.”