Food for Life


Food for Life Cover.

Originally published in 2001 for the University's 150th year, Food for Life is an illustrated catalog of 467 U of M releases of major and minor crops and the research that went into their development. A printable PDF version can be found in the Digital Conservancy. The content is also available digitally below.

Today, MAES supported researchers in CFANS are focused on breeding new varieties of crops that will allow us to have a safe and sustainable food supply for the world's growing population. Visit the MAES news feed for updated information on U of M crop development research and variety releases.

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Minnesota farmers harvested about 10 bushels of wheat per acre in 1890. Up to that time feeding more people meant planting more land: cultivating prairies, clearing forests, or draining wetlands. Today, yields of 60 bushels per acre are not uncommon, thanks largely to land grant university research. Society and scientists now face other land use issues: restoration to prairie or forest, conservation, recreation, or development. 

Research to improve wheat started at the University of Minnesota in 1889 when plant breeders and a cereal chemist first evaluated wheat varieties from Minnesota, Hungary, and other parts of Europe, Russia, and Canada. After 10 years, their report summarized work with 552 varieties planted on the St. Paul campus:

"Plant breeding is in its infancy, and plans for extensive scientific breeding of this crop had to be devised rather than copied . . . Not only yield but the quality of the grain and other characteristics were taken into account in selecting plants to become the mother of varieties."

The first of 35 U of M wheat varieties was released to farmers in 1895.

This era marked the practical beginning of the science of genetics and plant breeding and of worldwide improvements in yield and grain quality. While Swedish monk Gregor Mendel discovered in the 1860s how traits were inherited by plants, the information was not widely known — and certainly not applied — until the 1890s.

The next revolution in plant breeding began with the 1970s discovery of how to view and change a plant's structure at the molecular level, rather than selecting chance variants from among tens of thousands of plant crosses. Still, the goals of wheat improvement are much the same as a century ago: high yield, good baking characteristics, disease resistance, and the ability to stand up until harvest. Growers contribute to the research efforts through the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council.

Minneapolis Grain Exchange 
In 1881 the Minneapolis Grain Exchange — originally called the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce — was organized to promote fair trade of wheat, corn, and oats between growers and millers. Today, options on 20 million bushels a day are handled, making it the largest cash exchange market in the world. Crops grown from the upper Midwest to the Pacific — wheat, barley, oats, durum, rye, sunflower seeds, flax, corn, soybeans, millet, and milo — are traded selecting chance variants from among tens of thousands of plant crosses. Still, the goals of wheat improvement are much the same as a century ago: high yield, good baking characteristics, disease resistance, and the ability to stand up until harvest. Growers contribute to the research efforts through the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council.

Soo Line Railroad
The Soo Line railroad planned and paid for by the grain millers, shipped flour to export markets via Sault Ste. Marie beginning in 1887. Competing lines serving Chicago and Milwaukee tried to divert milling business from Minneapolis — the "Mill City" — by offering cheaper rates. Today, Minnesota is the undisputed center for food and agriculture industries, with over $200 billion of business annually.

Major Milestones 

  • GLYNDON, 1915, was the result of a cooperative UM-USDA breeding effort that began in 1907 and continues today.
  • MARQUILLO, 1928, was the first stem rust-resistant variety from the U of M, but its flour was dark and not accepted by the milling industry.
  • THATCHER, 1934, became one of the most popular wheat varieties ever grown in the U.S. By 1941 it occupied 17 million acres here and in Canada. Good yielding and resistant to stem rust, it was the result of plant pathologists working closely with plant breeders. In 1951, 'Thatcher' was still the main wheat grown in North America.
  • ERA, 1970, was the first semidwarf spring wheat released by a public institution. Semidwarfs are short and less likely to fall over before harvest, and growing energy is directed to the grain rather than leaves and stem. 'Era' was the dominant variety in Minnesota until 1983.
  • MARSHALL, 1982, quickly became a leading variety and was planted on 70 percent of the state's wheat acres and over 5 million acres in the U.S. until 1990.

U of M Wheat Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M wheat varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page


Forage Legumes

Forages are a main source of livestock food, and unlike most other crops they have no direct human use. Alfalfa, clover, vetch — all legumes — and grass make up 70 percent of the diet of beef cattle and 90 percent of sheep intake. Perennial forages protect against erosion because the soil is not tilled each year.

In the 1880s alfalfa was an experimental crop that wouldn't survive Minnesota winters, though it was the forage of choice for European dairy herds. 

In 1895 the U's Agricultural Experiment Station released its first three plant varieties: an oat, a wheat, and "Grimm" alfalfa. The name honors the Carver County farmer who brought 20 pounds of alfalfa seed from Germany in 1857. By collecting seeds from surviving plants, he developed a winter-hardy alfalfa that researchers used for extensive management studies and breeding.

Alfalfa is now the mainstay of our dairy industry, which ranks fifth in the country and brings in $1.5 billion to farmers, and adds over $6 billion to processors of milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream. Almost 150 years ago Minnesota dairying led to the establishment of the first farm cooperatives in the country. Now, we are home to two of the world's largest.
Deep rooting varieties of alfalfa were developed by UM-USDA scientists to extract nitrogen from the soil. The legume's roots reach below the root systems of cereal crops to keep nitrogen from entering groundwater or tile lines. In the last decade, alternative legumes such as kura clover and native species such as cicer milkvetch have been introduced by the University as options to help diversify Minnesota agriculture.

U of M breeding of red and white clovers and bromegrass began in 1946. The goal is to improve winter hardiness and disease resistance. 'Minn A' white clover germplasm was released to industry breeders in 1974 and is found in many commercial varieties.

An indirect benefit of crop production is 12 million pounds of honey produced here each year. U of M entomologists have developed "hygienic" honeybees that are helping colonies nationwide eliminate parasitic mites.

Cicer Milkvetch
Livestock, like children, won't eat something they don"t like. University and USDA research led to the release of "HiPal" — short for high palatability — cicer milkvetch, and a low alkaloid reed canary grass, a native grass that cattle previously would not eat.

U of M researchers were the first to prove that palatability differences are more important than crop yield, or quantity of nutrients, in grazing animal performance.

Legumes — plants with pods above ground and nodules on their roots — have the unique ability to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into soil nitrogen that can be used by later crops as fertilizer.

Management Guides for Forages
Applied research helps farmers manage forages to produce the best crop for dairy, beef, and sheep herds. In 1937 the University published the first comprehensive management guide for alfalfa, earlier considered an "exotic" crop. Today, scientists evaluate forages in many ways:

  • Species selection
  • Planting date
  • Planting rate
  • How often to harvest
  • Grazing or mechanical harvest
  • Forage quality and yield

U of M Forage Legumes

Plant breeders strive to develop forage crops to meet the quality and palatability or taste requirements of livestock, and the practical needs of farmers including high yield, disease resistance, and winter hardiness. Forages are also valued for erosion control, both on cropland and along highways.

For an up-to-date listing of U of M forage legume varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page



Grasses are a nutritious forage for dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, and bison. And, they provide a ground cover to protect roadsides, populate prairies, and beautify home lawns, golf courses, and athletic fields. Grasses are an ideal perennial crop, pleasing to look at, high in protein and fiber, and nature's best soil stabilizer.

In the early 1880s, U of M agronomists showed farmers that timothy was the best pasture grass for southern Minnesota. An extensive study of sustainable crop rotations between 1900 and 1910 documented that alternating small grains, timothy, red clover, and corn were more profitable than continuous cropping of either corn or grain. Researchers analyze cropping practices for long-term benefits: to the economy, the environment, and animal health and nutrition. In the 1950s-60s scientists continued to refine pasture management and introduced new crops to the mix, including bromegrass, birdsfoot trefoil, and Kentucky bluegrass. Now, molecular genetics research helps identify specific traits to incorporate into new cultivars.

Agricultural Experiment Station researchers have also developed tools that help producers after the harvest is in, such as an efficient technique for evaluating the chemical composition and digestibility of forages. Near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy — NIRS — is now used worldwide to measure grass and legume quality after it is in storage.

If grass or legume is grown for seed rather than for animal feed or ground cover, it is managed differently. U of M research in the 1940s led to the development of a major U.S. grass seed industry in our cool climate near the Canadian border. Here, almost $1.5 million of seed is harvested each year for bird feed, home lawn, golf course, and athletic field use as well as plantings for forage crops. Minnesota ranks fourth nationally in the production of grass seed, and U of M plant breeders are introducing new varieties of perennial ryegrass and quackgrass to complement bluegrass used in landscaping.

Rotational grazing allows cows access to pasture at its peak nutritional level. Agricultural Experiment Station research at Morris and Grand Rapids documented that this system of frequently moving cows to different pastures provides a more nutritious diet. In addition, it is lower in cost and protects soil and water resources.

Research to protect conservation set-aside acres is shared with farmers and other consumers through an efficient outreach system, the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Horticultural scientists study specific traits of grasses destined for turf use on golf courses, athletic fields, and home lawns. University breeders recently released MN 184, a creeping bluegrass for golf course greens, tees, and fairways. Compared with bentgrass it has a higher plant population which results in a more upright leaf position that is better for putting. It is ideally suited for northern and coastal climates and is better adapted to shady conditions. In just a few years MN 184 seed has found its way from coast to coast, including Pebble Beach (left), and courses in Europe. An improved variety, MN 234, will be even more popular, as it does not flower at heights maintained on courses.

The U of M also carries out National Turfgrass Evaluation Trials, helping select the best performing and disease-resistant grasses from around the world. Through genetic analysis of biotypes of turfgrasses, breeders hope to develop new varieties that will perform optimally in specific growing conditions.

U of M Grass Varieties

For an up-to-date listing of U of M grass varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page


Soybeans and corn are the dominant crops in Minnesota, with almost equal amounts grown — over 7 million acres each — and harvest values of between one and two billion dollars each. Soybeans were grown in China for more than 5,000 years, as corn was cultivated by Native Americans. U.S. farmers grew soybeans in the late 1800s for cattle forage, and in the 1920s began harvesting them for seeds.

University varieties released in the 1920s and 30s were selected from similar latitudes in China and Korea and tested at U of M Agricultural Experiment Stations in Waseca and Morris. However, their 1932 annual report saw limited potential: "The soybean crop has an important function in Southern Minnesota agriculture as an annual or emergency hay crop in case of clover hay failure."

By 1940, southern Minnesota farmers planted 251,000 acres of beans that yielded 15 bushels per acre. Now, yields average 41 bushels an acre thanks to breeders, plant disease experts, and soil scientists that adapted the crop to Minnesota.
In 1946 a U of M plant breeder was hired to develop varieties tailored to Minnesota, the most northerly state in the Corn Belt. By the 1970s, 20 varieties were released and plant pathologists and breeders began developing plants resistant to the soybean cyst nematode (SCN), a major pest that invaded southern counties. Another measure of breeders' success in bringing the soybean north is that 16% of the Minnesota crop is now exported through Duluth; none went through that northern port 15 years ago.

Soybeans were recognized by the legislature in 1960 with funding to expand genetics and physiology work. In 1965 farmers began supporting research via the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. The three-way partnership has made Minnesota research, varieties, and products worldwide commodities.

Soybean Uses
Soybeans are processed into two major components, protein and oil, and a third minor category of whole soybean products. More than 50% of the world's protein comes from this crop. Soybeans are an excellent protein source since each seed contains 40% protein, compared with other legumes - 25% - and cereal grains with about 12% protein. Most soy products are consumed by livestock.

  • Soybean Protein and Meal Products
    • Poultry, swine, beef, dairy, and pet food. Flour, meat substitute, soymilk, baby formula, pharmaceuticals, adhesives.
  • Soybean Oil Products
    • Cooking oil, margarine, salad dressing, biodiesel, dust control, printing ink, glycerol, fatty acids, sterols, lecithin.
  • Whole Soybean Products (less than 1%)
    • Sprouts, roasted soy nuts, tofu, soy sauce.

Major Milestones
The University develops soybeans that compete in world markets. 'Chico' and 'Grande' represent two extremes in size, but represent Minnesota's almost one billion dollars of beans exported annually.

  • RENVILLE, 1953, first release adapted from a U of Illinois population, adapted to central and south-central Minnesota.
  • EVANS, 1974, popular variety for decades, still grown in U.S. and Europe. In mid-90s occupied 57% of bean acres in north and west-central Minnesota.
  • McCALL, 1978, earliest maturity of any U of M release, still popular.
  • GRANDE, 1976, largest seeded release, 22 grams/100 seeds vs 16 for regular beans. Developed specifically for soy flake breakfast food.
  • CHICO, 1983, first of the small-seeded types, 50% smaller than average, bred for specialty products — sprouts and miso. Followed by 'Minnatto' and 'UM-3'.
  • STURDY, 1989, latest maturing bean from U of M program for most southern Minnesota.
  • PROTO, 1989, first high protein variety for special uses such as tofu.
  • TOYOPRO, 1995, higher protein, export market for tofu, and soymilk.

U of M Soybean Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M soybean varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Sugar Beets

Minnesota produces more sugar beets than any other state in the country, and North Dakota ranks second. Rich soils of the Red River Valley are the base for this crop's $2.3 billion economic impact on the region. Seven farmer-owned processing plants in the two states turn beets into refined white and brown sugars. The harvest begins in early September and the first loads go directly to processing. An inventory of raw material builds — mountains of beets — and is processed during the winter. When spring temperatures arrive the facilities shut down, as it is impractical to keep any remaining beets cool. The grower cooperatives attempt to match nationwide demand with processing capacity.

Beets originally contained about two percent sugar, but sugar beet varieties were bred to maximize their sweetness. Minnesota beets now average 17-18 percent sugar. The process for extracting sugar was developed in Germany in 1747, and a research effort to increase sugar content was underwritten by Napoleon I in the early 1800s. He feared that France's sugar supply from Caribbean cane fields would be blockaded by the British, in their continued dispute with the new America and the impending War of 1812. By the 1890s the use of beets for sugar spread across Europe and reached this country.

A 34-year joint research effort of the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, whose scientists work closely with the Sugar Beet Research and Education Board of Minnesota and North Dakota, has helped improve performance through:

  • Weed control and management
  • Understanding and controlling pathogens
  • Variety performance
  • Stand populations
  • Planting dates
  • Soils
  • Insect control


Potatoes are the world's most popular vegetable, produce the most food per acre, and have the best balance — of any plant — of the eight amino acids needed by humans. The U of M breeding program uses wild sources from the Andes of Peru and Chile to improve disease resistance, and tolerance to cold, heat, and drought.

Minnesota is at the center of U.S. potato production. The industry has three main segments: fresh market, seed, and processing for chips, fries, and dehydrated foods. Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are big in all three. The region produces almost a third of all potatoes grown in the country, supports a huge processing industry that adds about $500 million a year to Minnesota's economy, and grows almost half of the seed potatoes used in the U.S. The country's largest potato farming operation is in Minnesota.

U of M plant scientists have been improving potatoes since 1919. Today, researchers from horticulture, entomology, plant pathology, and soil science team up to improve yield, pest resistance, and quality. Culinary, storability, and nutritional traits are also emphasized, such as flavonoids that reduce the risk of prostate cancer and optic impairments. Graduate students learn by working on these interdisciplinary projects and help solve multiple problems simultaneously.

While an ideal food, the potato plant is susceptible to more than its share of diseases — blight, viruses, wilt, scab — and the foliage is a delicacy for insects. For example, besides causing direct damage, aphids quickly spread plant diseases from field to field. A high-intensity research effort is now underway to control late blight and two viruses that have reached epidemic proportions, reducing Minnesota's seed potato business by 40 percent in the last five years. The problem is complex, and investigators seek answers that will reduce the need for chemical inputs.

U of M potato breeders evaluate:

  • Yield
  • Processing quality
  • Baked flavor
  • Disease resistance
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Maturity date
  • Skin color
  • Eyes, skin texture

U of M Potato Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M potato varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Uncommon Crops

Plants have many uses besides direct consumption by humans or livestock. In 1954 U of M trials documented that rye acts as a bio-control of weeds in row crops such as soybeans, naturally suppressing weed growth. Rye straw is used for livestock bedding and the grain as feed, Christmas tree growers plant rye between rotations as natural weed control, and there is a small market for human use in loaves of bread and rolls.

Uncommon crops diversify Minnesota's economy and landscape. When U of M researchers introduced "new" crops such as alfalfa and soybeans they had specific objectives of breeding for winter hardiness or earlier maturity. They were motivated, knowing that markets for the crops existed. In 1948 an adventurous research effort was initiated to evaluate all crops with potential for agricultural production. Some of the possible uses were in crop rotations, as exotic foods or beverages, for medicinal applications, for industrial products, for pulp and paper, or to benefit the environment.

Over the last half-century, 225 species from 26 plant families were evaluated at U of M research stations throughout the state. Agronomists studied the management and breeding of promising crops while food scientists and agricultural economists explored utilization and markets. The results are an encyclopedia of alternative crops that are used to diversify crop production in Minnesota and throughout the plains states.

Uncommon Crops Evaluated by the U of M

  • Amaranth - Grain for flour, cereal
  • Annual Canary Grass - Birdfeed, potential food
  • Buckwheat - Pancake flour, (Japanese) noodles
  • Camelina - Vegetable oil
  • Canola - Major edible oil
  • Chickpea - Salads, soups
  • Comfrey - Tea
  • Coneflower - Herb, natural medicine
  • Crambe - Industrial oil
  • Crownvetch - Roadside reclamation
  • Fababean - Middle Eastern food, livestock feed
  • Fieldbean - Navy, pinto, kidney, great northern
  • Fieldpea - Animal feed, human
  • Flax - Linseed oil, edible oil, linen, paper
  • Grain Sorghum - Livestock feed, African staple
  • Hemp - Fiber for rope, paper, medicinal
  • Kenaf - Fiber for cardboard, cheap paper
  • Lentil - Soups, sprouts
  • Millet - African grain, flour, bird feed
  • Mustard - Spice
  • Pumpkin - Snack, roasted & fried
  • Niger - Birdfeed, cooking oil
  • Oilseed Radish - Industrial oil
  • Peanut - Oil, feed
  • Quinoa - Grain, flour, cereal
  • Ragi - Bread, puddings, liquor
  • Rape - Industrial oil, ancestor of canola
  • Rye - Flour, livestock feed, whisky
  • Safflower - Cooking oil, bird feed
  • Sesame - Garnish on baked goods, cooking oil
  • Sunflower - Cooking oil, snacks, bird feed
  • Tef - African grain, flour
  • Vetch - Forage, roadside restoration

Amaranth Grain
Colorful amaranth is a healthy grain used in pasta and crackers. The first University studies of yield, varieties, and production practices were planted in 1966. Originally from South America, amaranth was considered one of 3 crops of the Aztec gods. The use of the leaves for livestock feed was also researched by U of M and USDA scientists.

U of M Varieties Used as Birdfeed
Minnesota is a major producer of birdfeed. Many of the companies that mix and package the products are located in the northwestern part of the state. In addition to the varieties listed below, U of M research has helped develop other crops that are for the birds, including sunflowers, millet, and annual canarygrass.

U of M Rye, Uncommon Crop, and Birdseed Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M rye, uncommon crop, and birdseed varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page


Oil Crops

A rolling landscape of yellow-flowered canola, a bright field of sunflowers, soybeans drying in the September sun, and waving stalks of corn all indicate the vast quantity of vegetable oil consumed in this country.

Oils are used for frying and baking, and in products from salad dressing to margarine. Still, they have an even longer list of industrial uses, from the ink on this publication to road deicers and bio-diesel fuel. From a dietary perspective, the last 50 years have seen a complete turnover in the source of oils. In 1950 U.S. consumption of vegetable oils was 15.5 pounds per person, in 2000 it was 60.7 pounds. All crops combined, Minnesota produces over one billion pounds of vegetable oil, making it one of the top producers in the U.S.

Food scientists at the University of Minnesota analyze fatty acids of specific crop varieties, to determine — for example — which future soybean variety produces the healthiest cooking oil. Because of America's great dependence on fried foods, the most desirable oils remain stable longer, even while subjected to high heat.

A fundamental change occurred in agricultural commodities utilization over the last 50 to 75 years. Crops once used directly as feed, such as corn for pigs, are now broken down into primary components — oil, fiber, and protein — with many markets for each.
The U of M's long-term investigation of new crops, and new uses for the more common, enables Minnesota farmers and industries to compete nationally and globally. Fifty years ago soybeans and sunflowers were not grown here, but U of M research made it possible. And today, farmers and health-conscious consumers benefit from efforts to improve and expand the production of canola.

Vacationers crossing northwestern Minnesota likely are unaware that Minnesota is the country's second-largest producer of canola. Low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acid, canola oil is growing in popularity.
Minnesota acreage has increased from 8,000 acres to over 250,000 acres in the last decade, providing an alternative crop in an area devastated by diseases in wheat and potatoes. University researchers evaluate canola varieties for nutrient needs, pest control, and rotation with small grains.    

Sunflowers were not a U.S. farm commodity until U of M agronomists began work with Russian varieties in 1948. In 1967 the first sunflower oil extraction plant in the country was built in Gonvik. Minnesota is now the fifth in sunflower production, with specific types for oil production, human, or birds.

Flax is a history lesson in itself. It was brought by colonists and planted for fiber to weave into heavy linen clothing. Linseed oil was extracted from the seed and used as a preservative and paint. As America moved west and urbanized, demand for paint jumped and flax production soared. A huge linseed oil and paint industry developed alongside the country's major flax growing areas of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The first manufacturer of prepared paints in the U.S. was in the Twin Cities, and over half of the major paint companies operated here. By the 1940s Minnesota produced half of the country's flax.

Flax production was critical during both World Wars to make paint for military equipment, and as feed — flax cakes — for livestock overseas in WWI. Flax acreage dropped sharply after WWII and again as synthetic fibers were developed, and almost disappeared by 1980 as latex paint displaced oil-based products. Today, flax is grown on limited acreage, but there is a renewed interest in the fiber for papermaking and as a healthy, edible oil, thanks to plant breeders.

University of Minnesota flax research efforts over the past 110 years reflect society's needs. In 1890, after flax wilt hit the crop several times, the governor appointed the University's botanist and entomologist to, "make all necessary experiments and to find a remedy against this disease." By 1894 one plant that demonstrated resistance was selected, out of thousands evaluated. The progeny was named 'Primost' and released in 1900, the first pure-line flax variety in the U.S. The U of M Agricultural Experiment Station established the world center for flax testing and, until 1972, maintained the thousands of accessions in the world germplasm collection.

U of M Flax Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M flax varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Development, Certification, and Marketing of U of M Varieties
While the University of Minnesota's Agricultural Experiment Station has responsibility for developing new agronomic — and horticultural — crops, the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) makes the new agronomic varieties available to farmers. MCIA's ties with the University date to 1903, when U of M plant breeders interested in the "systematic encouragement of the use of pedigreed seeds" founded the organization.

Today, the independent non-profit association is Minnesota's official seed certifying agency, providing Identity Preserved and Quality Assurance seed that is high quality and weed-free, having been tested in purity and germination laboratories. MCIA also provides pre-certification of forest crops, and native plants — grasses and forbs — services.



Two basic types of barley — feed and malting — are grown in Minnesota. 

The U of M breeding program focused on malting varieties for the last half-century. Earlier, high protein feed varieties for livestock were developed. As rail and truck distribution improved, breweries in St. Louis, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and other Midwest centers dominated the U.S. market. Quality barley was made possible by the climate and soils of western Minnesota and the Dakotas, matched with highly desirable seed developed by U of M researchers. A 1992 economic study documented that about two-thirds of all beer produced in the U.S. contained barley developed by U of M Agricultural Experiment Station scientists.

The primary goals of the barley breeding program are to develop high yielding varieties that are disease resistant, and that demonstrate exceptionally high malting and brewing qualities.

The American Malting Barley Association supports U of M research, and tests rail-car quantities of any upcoming release to ensure it will offer brewers an improved product. For example, the varieties 'Morex' and 'Robust' provided malt houses with a higher percent of malt extract per bushel, as well as reduced malting time. Over a ten-year period, this amounted to $297 million more for farmers and the brewing industry, from a $9 million investment in research and extension work. Growers support those efforts through the Minnesota Barley Research and Promotion Council.

Agronomists, plant pathologists, and molecular geneticists are now breeding barley — and wheat — for resistance to fusarium head blight or scab. Through the 1990s this fungal disease resulted in over 1 billion dollars of losses. In 1998 the University released 'MnBrite' — a variety with some resistance — and in 2000, 'Lacey' — a moderately resistant variety. Fully resistant varieties are the goal of a focused research effort enabled by special legislative funding.

Major Milestones
University of Minnesota malting barleys are "6-row" types, which yield the most grain per acre. Only one U of M variety, 'Svansota,' was a 2-row type like those grown in the drier, western production areas of Montana and Idaho.

  • MANCHURIA, was named and released in 1918 but was first selected in 1901 as Minn 184. The first nine U of M Agricultural Experiment Station barley varieties — through WWII — were feed types.
  • VELVET, 1926, was developed to eliminate the sharp hairs — awns — that prick farmers' skin and cause sores in animals' mouths. All but two barley varieties released since then have smooth awns.
  • MOREX, is named for "more extract" that it provides brewers. From 1980-84 it was grown on twice as many U.S. acres as any other barley.
  • ROBUST, yields the plump, robust kernels favored by the malting industry. A 1983 release, it has a higher grain yield than 'Morex' and was grown on half the acreage in the tri-state area (ND, SD, MN) from 1985-99.
  • EXCEL, is a 1990 U of M release that combined the high grain yield of 'Robust' and high malt extract of 'Morex'.

U of M Barley Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M barley varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Sweet Corn and Green Peas

Sweet corn makes many people smile. Minnesota grown corn-on-the-cob is a culinary sign of midsummer, awaited by gourmets of every age. However, the consumption of fresh produce is dwarfed by quantities commercially processed and sold frozen or canned. The Midwest region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois produces more than 45 percent of the U.S. supply of processed vegetables, with a wholesale value close to two billion dollars. Much is sold directly to the foodservice industry: restaurants, schools, and hospitals.

Minnesota's canning industry began in the 1920s and expanded because the cool and somewhat dry climate in Minnesota reduces insect and disease problems. Even so, up to 10 percent of the pea crop is lost to root rot. U of M horticultural research focuses on root rot in peas, and control of European corn borer and earworm damage in sweet corn.

Breeders developed and released to seed companies germplasm with improved resistance to these pests, and scientists are improving crop management systems for sustainable production. Also, food scientists have increased the nutrient levels of processed foods, through improved storage and processing technology.

Vegetables as Medicine
Cabbage grown at the Southern Research and Outreach Center, Waseca, is part of a U of M medical and nutrition study. Plant scientists are developing methods to enhance the plant's production of nutraceuticals, chemicals such as glucosinolates that reduce one's risk of cancer.

The relationship between plants and human health is the focus of additional studies by food and biomedical scientists and horticulturalists. Other crops being evaluated for cancer chemopreventive agents include watercress, Chinese cabbage, carrots, turnips, and tomatoes.

U of M Sweet Corn and Green Pea Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M sweet corn and green pea varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Wild Rice

Wild rice is an aquatic grass revered by Native Americans in the Lake States, New England, and Canada. The only cereal grain native to the United States, this delicacy is Minnesota's State Grain. In the 1950s University plant scientists began studying hundreds of alternative crops, including wild rice. At the same time, interested farmers in northern Minnesota began to form a cultivated wild rice industry to meet increased demand.

Researchers were challenged in taming the wild rice plant to make it suitable for paddy production. There were limitations of planting, caring for, and harvesting an aquatic species. The seed head "shatters" when ripe, sending the precious crop into the water. Plants in natural stands mature at widely different times so several harvests must be made. And, the seed is not viable unless it is stored in conditions similar to a lake bottom.

Nevertheless, by 1964 selections were successfully grown in U of M paddies in St. Paul. Since then, nine varieties of paddy wild rice have been developed, each with improved production or disease-resistance characteristics.
Today there are two wild rice communities. Native Americans hand-harvest wild rice by traditional methods, from canoes and using flails to dislodge the grain, which is labeled "lake grown." U of M varieties are grown by commercial producers in paddies where mechanical harvesting is done by specialized combines. Minnesota produces over 6 million pounds of "paddy grown" wild rice, and much of it goes to food processors that market it in blends with white rice.
Interestingly, recent DNA analysis shows that white rice and wild rice have some common ancestry, contrary to earlier thinking that these species evolved separately in Asia and North America.

Wild Rice Breeding Program Objectives
To develop:

  • Earlier maturity
  • Resistance to leaf diseases
  • Increased shattering resistance
  • Multiple stems that mature together
  • Seed that can be stored dry

U of M Wild Rice Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M wild rice varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page


Of all major food crops in Minnesota, corn — or maize — is the only native of the Americas. Maize was domesticated about 5,000 years ago in tropical Mexico, and cultivation spread among Native American tribes. Unlike other grasses, it produces separate male (tassels) and female flowers (silks) and can adapt quickly to different environments.

Until about 1915, farmers collected seed for the next crop from their best plants. They graded the cobs following University guidelines that even included plans for the wood rack used to sort the cobs. While this open-pollinated seed was somewhat customized to local conditions, the plants matured unevenly and the stalks often broke and fell over. U of M agronomists released exceptional open-pollinated varieties in the early 1900s as they developed the science of controlled pollination — leading to hybrids — along with breeders at other land grant universities in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska. Of all major food crops in Minnesota, corn — or maize — is the only native of the Americas.

Efforts from 1915–20 identified "inbred" lines possessing specific, desirable traits that could be combined to create hybrids for particular regions and uses. In 1920 U of M corn breeding efforts expanded by adding staff at a branch of the University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Waseca. Earlier maturing hybrids — for northern regions — were tested on the St. Paul campus, while researchers at Waseca developed higher-yielding, full-season hybrids.

Experimental hybrid corn varieties were released by the U of M in the late 1920s, as researchers conducted two landmark studies defining the trait of genetic "combining ability" and how important it was to hybrid success. The best in the reservoir of superior inbreds were used over the next 50 years to create almost 100 "Minhybrids" adapted to Minnesota's extreme conditions. U of M researchers have long worked for farmers through the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council.

From dry sandy areas up north to moist organic soils and a longer growing season in the south, the University varieties set performance standards for a rapidly developing private seed corn industry.

Maturity Testing
In 1939 the state legislature approved maturity testing of all seed corn sold, an early consumer protection act for farmers. Five zones were established from north to south, with the U of M Agricultural Experiment Station designated as an official testing agency. Researchers plant and test hybrids in each zone and compare days to maturity (30 percent ear moisture) to a reference hybrid. Seed companies provide this rating on each bag of seed sold.

Corn Production and Uses
The United States provides about 80 percent of the world's corn. Minnesota, on the northern fringe of the Corn Belt, ranks fourth in the U.S.
Corn has over 3,500 uses, falling into several broad categories:

  • 50% Animal feed — cattle, hogs, poultry
  • 23% Exports — almost all for livestock feed
  • 10% Reserves — provides a supply in bad crop years
  • 8% Sweetener — candy, and over half of all non - diet soda
  • 5% Ethanol fuel — reduces pollution
  • 4% Direct human consumption — thickener in processed foods
  • Researchers Evaluate Corn for:
  • Early season vigor
  • Resistance to stem & leaf diseases
  • Insect resistance
  • Plant height
  • Number of ears per plant
  • Ear length
  • Number of rows of kernels
  • Root systems & standability
  • Date of maturity
  • Yield performance

50 Years of U of M Research Shared Globally
From 1950 to 2000 the U of M released to commercial seed companies more than 100 inbred lines and germplasm — the specific, unique characteristics of a plant. Traits captured in germplasm solve specific challenges: disease resistance, natural protection from insects, drought tolerance, or efficient use of nitrogen. The genetic information is developed by traditional and modern breeding techniques, including molecular genetics. Hybrid seed contains germplasm from many sources, built upon decades of public and private research.

A major analysis of corn grown two decades ago showed that U of M germplasm was used in hybrids growing on 21 percent of U.S. corn acres. Two of the inbred lines ranked first and fourth of all corn parents in the country.

A U of M genetic engineering effort created high lysine, an essential amino acid, germplasm. The goal is to improve human and animal nutrition in parts of the world where maize is a major component of the diet.

University accomplishments in corn breeding are recognized globally. In the 1950s and 60s, Minnesota breeders worked with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and shared Minnesota corn germplasm worldwide. These efforts have attracted many international students. After working on genetics, disease, insect, or soils research, they have gone on to establish or strengthen research programs worldwide.

U of M Corn Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M corn varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page


Oats were originally one of the most widely grown farm crops in the Midwest. The grain was used for protein and fiber in animal diets and the straw as bedding. Oats fit well into the labor and livestock intense system of 1900.

As America developed so did its manufacturing, transportation, and agricultural systems. Farms became specialized and mechanized, with fewer and fewer draft animals needed to work on farms, or in cities, mines, or forests. In Minnesota, oat production was on 2,500,000 acres in 1900, peaked in 1945 at 5,392,000, and is 300,000 acres today. The average farm is now 356 acres and specializes: in corn-soybeans, small grains, or forage crops, and/or a single livestock species.

Oats are still a multiple-use crop. In addition to animal feed and bedding, they are found in a wide variety of bread, cereals of all types, granola bars, and as a thickener in infant foods. University of Minnesota cereal and nutrition scientists documented how beta-glucan, found in abundance in oat and barley fiber, lowers the risk factors for heart disease. Oats are now widely promoted as the "most healthy" grain.

Early U of M research led to higher-yielding varieties resistant to fungal diseases that can spread extremely fast and destroy the crop. In 1966 oat scientists began a cooperative research effort with Mexican breeders after stem rust decimated that country's oat fields. After improving Mexican varieties to incorporate rust resistance, Experiment Station researchers began work with scientists in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay where crown rust is still a severe problem.
Plant breeders use winter nurseries to speed variety development. The U of M oat program has off-season plots in New Zealand, in a site with soils and growing conditions similar to Minnesota. For more than 50 years, the Quaker Oats Company has supported U of M international and domestic research as well as many graduate students.

U of M Oat Varieties
For an up-to-date listing of U of M oat varieties releases please check the U of M Variety Releases page

Field Beans

Minnesota supports a healthy industry that grows and packages beans used for soups, chilis, tacos, and burritos. Farmers harvest about 250 million pounds of beans each year and most of it is exported. Plant scientists with the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station have studied this specialty crop since the 1950s. Researchers tested hundreds of varieties, identified the best performers, worked on-field practices, improved processing, and helped create products and a new industry in the 1970s.

Some of the market classes of beans grown here — and their main uses — include:

  • Adzuki — salads, soups, vegetable burgers, confectionary uses in Japan
  • Pinto — chili, bean dip, refried beans, burritos, export markets
  • Navy — soups, baked beans, export to England
  • Kidney — chili, salads, baked dishes
  • Great northern — soups, stews, cassoulet, export to England
  • Black turtle — Cajun dishes, soups, beans, and rice, export to Central and South America
  • Cranberry — specialty bean dishes, soups, spreads

Minnesota now leads the nation in the production of dark red kidney beans, with four times the harvest of the next competitor, Michigan. About 165,000 acres of field beans are grown, in the Red River Valley and on irrigated sandy soil between Elk River, Park Rapids, and Wadena. The crop adds diversity to consumers' diets, to farm income, and to Minnesota agriculture.

A Research Case Study: Disease Resistance in Small Grains

Agricultural research, be it current or historic, molecular or applied, meets the pressing needs of Minnesotans. While many successes are documented here, a look at an ongoing project illustrates the complexity of agriculture and research.

Fusarium head blight, commonly known as "scab", is a disease affecting wheat and barley that emerged in 1993. By 1995 the outbreak became an epidemic and by 2000 had caused $1 billion of crop losses in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Minnesota Legislature responded by funding a research effort of over a million dollars a year. In the last century, no plant disease in this region has caused so much damage, though rust outbreaks from 1900-the 30s came close.

Researchers found that the scab devastation was caused by a convergence of a number of factors.

  1. Wheat and barley varieties used did not have resistance to scab.
  2. The increased popularity of reduced tillage, leaving more surface residue which reduces erosion, but also harbors the pathogen.
  3. New crops — some host fusarium — were grown in the small grain areas as farmers diversified.
  4. Rotten weather, specifically, more than usual warm-moist conditions during grain heading that provided ideal conditions for fungal growth.

U of M and USDA geneticists had previously identified some resistance in Chinese varieties. However, as the timeline below shows, it takes almost a decade to release a new variety. Gene splicing allows more precise control over the results, but a genetic source of resistance must first be identified.

Besides breeding efforts, fusarium head blight is being fought on other fronts. Plant pathologists developed techniques to more rapidly test for the disease. Agricultural engineers invented processes to separate infected kernels from clean ones, providing hope that producers would still be able to market their crop. Food scientists and livestock researchers test consumer acceptance of food, feed, and beverages that contain residual levels of scab.

While the fight to control fusarium head blight is not over, new varieties represent incremental improvements. Other spin-offs from this effort will help when future challenges arise: techniques to measure traces of disease, and new nurseries, irrigation systems, and greenhouses that will be used far into the future.

Progress Against Scab

  • BacUp, wheat, 1996, reasonable yield and kernel quality even in scab conditions, introduced as a "bridge" to farmers in areas with severe scab conditions until more resistant varieties are developed.
  • HJ98, wheat, 1998, high yield wheat, medium protein, medium-high scab resistance.
  • McVEY, wheat, 1999, first wheat variety with very high yield under either scab or no-scab conditions.
  • MnBRITE, barley, 1998, malting variety with some resistance to fusarium head-blight.
  • LACEY, barley, 2000, moderately scab-resistant malting barley.

Plant Breeding Timeline: A Decade of Commitment

  • Year 0 - Initial cross-pollination of parents, one may include a gene-spliced from another source. Many crosses (up to 200) of these parents are made to ensure an adequate seed supply for future tests.
  • Year 1 - Three consecutive generations of self-pollinated plants are grown, to ensure uniform genetic backgrounds. (1) greenhouse (1 seed per pot, about 1,000 pots); (2) field (800 plants per cross); (3) greenhouse (random selection from 200 field plants, 1 seed taken from each)
  • Year 2 - Seed (4th generation) is increased in winter nursery (Arizona) from 200 plants. Spring planting (5th generation) in 6 foot rows at St. Paul and Crookston, 20 best performing lines are identified. Initial, small scale malting test is conducted.
  • Year 3 - Seeds from 20 best are grown in Arizona to obtain 2 pounds of seed (6th generation) from each. Preliminary yield tests (7th generation) are grown in St. Paul and Crookston: 2 rows, each 10 feet long, replicated 3 times. Highest yielding lines move on.
  • Year 4 - Advanced yield trials in 5 Minnesota locations. Plots are 10 rows, each 10 feet long, with 3 replications.
  • Year 5 - 1st year of regional tests, 8-10 locations in Manitoba, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Very competitive. 1st year of pilot plant malting tests, using a few pounds of seed.
  • Year 6 - 2nd year of regional performance tests and pilot plant malting. The variety release process begins with a seed increase program designed to supply expected grower demand.
  • Year 7 - Seed increase continues. Large scale malting and brewing evaluations by American Malting Barley Association, using a minimum of 2,500 bushels.
  • Year 8 - New variety officially named and released by U of M Agricultural Experiment Station.
  • Year 9 - Seed widely available to growers through seed companies.

U of M Agricultural Research Sites
For well over a century the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station has developed plants that provide food for life. Minnesota crops feed livestock and the citizens of Minnesota, the United States, and literally the world. Potential new crops, and improved varieties and germplasm of those already established, begin their testing on the St. Paul Campus. Potential releases are tested at Research and Outreach Centers and other research facilities, which represent the wide range of moisture, soil, and temperature conditions found in Minnesota. If a variety is chosen for release it is usually marketed through the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association, or germplasm is provided to commercial seed companies that use it to adapt their varieties to Minnesota conditions.