The Roundup -

MSU Releases Green Pea Variety 12 Years In The Making


Chengci Chen, superintendent of the Eastern Agricultural Research Center, has spent the last 12 years developing pulse crops specifically adapted to Montana's growing conditions. (MSU Photo)

More than a decade ago when Montana's pulse crop industry was a sliver in northeastern Montana and there wasn't much money to fund alternative crop trials, a Montana State University agricultural faculty member was planting the future.

Chengci Chen, superintendent of the MSU Eastern Agricultural Research Center in Sidney has spent the last 12 years developing pulse crops specifically adapted to Montana's growing conditions. One successful green pea variety with high yield and protein, currently named MT457, was released from the university last month. It will be commercially available in 2020.

The new pea variety has a heavy seed weight and genetic resistance to Fusarium oxysporum Race 1, a widespread fungus that damages pulse crops. Chen said the variety also has nice height and produces multiple pods along the stem and is resistant to plant collapse, also called "lodging," which can make harvesting harder and reduce yield.

"What's unique about this variety is that it's bred specifically to perform well in Montana," said Kevin McPhee, who holds a doctorate in plant sciences as MSU's pulse crop breeder and professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. "I'm not confident this variety would perform well outside of Montana, in fact."

Chen and McPhee have been working together for more than a decade breeding and testing pea varieties for Montana -- before Montana produced the most pulse crops in the nation and before there were strong commodity markets for Big Sky peas. In Montana, pulse crops are chickpea, pea and lentil. In 2017, Montana farmers planted 525,000 acres of dry pea, according to the 2017 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Chen, who has a doctorate in agronomy, has been working on pulse crops since he started working at the MSU Central Agricultural Research Center in Moccasin as an assistant professor of agronomy and cropping systems in 2002, before moving to Sidney to become superintendent of EARC in 2015. The Moccasin facility is one of seven statewide agricultural research centers in the College of Agriculture and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. At CARC, Chen requested pea populations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service's Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology Research Unit in Pullman, Washington, where McPhee worked as the USDA unit's research plant geneticist at the time.

Following Chen's request, McPhee sent pea populations to Moccasin for Chen to make genetic selections for potentially adapted high- yielding plants for Montana. It was a long process starting from a single plant.

According to Chen, his pulse crop research program may have evaporated if it weren't for having a full-time CARC research associate, formerly Karnes Neill, who provided research support and field assistance. "It was a long and hard 12 years, especially the first few years when Montana's pulse crop industry was in its infancy," Chen said. "There weren't any check-off dollars from growers or funding support for pulse crop breeding or variety trials. We did this without any funding support. It was challenging."

McPhee would stop at Moccasin once or twice a year on the way to visit family in Lewistown to check on the field trials and suggest new genetic selections to Chen.

"Ultimately, our goal was to breed a variety that worked well for U.S. northwest production and future markets by sharing advanced lines and populations," McPhee said. "Stopping at Moccasin to visit Dr. Chen was convenient, and I was happy to see the consistent trials at the location which made new selections maybe a bit faster than other field trial locations."

Despite researching a relatively new crop for Montana with little funding at the time, Chen said he was obligated to introduce new crops to the state.

"My job description is to introduce specialty crops to Montana in wheat-based cropping systems," Chen said. "So, whether I have funding or not, I have to test specialty crops that have potential to grow in Montana. I'm happy to see this released finally."

After multiple genetic selections and field trials, Chen and Neill selected MT457. Chen said the new variety wouldn't have been possible without his colleagues at the seven research centers and on the main campus in Bozeman, for their support in testing this variety at multiple locations statewide during the last three years. Chen said EARC Research Scientist Yesuf Mohammed, who has a PhD in soil science, coordinated the statewide testing.

Kevin McPhee, professor of plant sciences and pulse crop genetics and breeding in the College of Agriculture at Montana State University, provided the original plant populations for the newly released MSU green pea variety.  (MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

Chen, who researches how pea crop yield and protein are affected by genetics that interact with diverse environments, said the new variety has a big seed size and bright color, which may be ideal for the green pea market in soups, salads or fried snack peas.

"This variety flowers and matures a few days earlier than other varieties, which presents some advantages to growers in central and southern regions of Montana to be able to avoid heat stress in the summer," he said. "From our statewide testing results in the past three years, this variety also performs very well under irrigated conditions."

Montana Foundation Seed Program manager Doug Holen said after McPhee increases enough breeder seed, the university will increase its foundation seed quantity of MT457 and the variety will likely be available commercially in 2020. The MFSP provides foundation seed, or genetically pure seed, to statewide producers and certified seed houses.


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