Improving agriculture: Retiring CSU wheat breeder reflects on career

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Scott Haley received his master's degree from Colorado State University in 1989 and his Ph. D. from CSU in 1992, after which he went on to work as a post-doctoral researcher at Michigan State University. In 1993, he took his first faculty position as a winter wheat breeder at South Dakota State University. In 1999, he returned to his alma mater, where he spent the next 22 years directing CSU’s wheat breeding program. He is retiring from the position at the end of the year.

Being chief wheat breeder in a wheat state is a high profile position, one Scott Haley is retiring from after 22 years.

“It’s all-consuming. It’s like living in a fishbowl,” he said from his office in Fort Collins via Zoom. “I really noticed this in the last year since I decided to retire. Wow, talk about pressure.”

He recalls a conversation with a wheat grower who had planted a section of ground with a CSU variety that all died during a severe cold snap. He made a point to let Haley know.

“I’m not going to miss that one bit,” Haley said with a grin.

But just as memorable are the countless wheat producers and professional colleagues who became great friends and encouraged his work every step of the way, giving him a much-needed “shot in the arm” now and then.

While he’s outgoing, easygoing and looks younger than his 60 years, Haley is also a fierce competitor.

He cites two primary motivations for that.

Two decades ago, the state’s wheat had such a bad reputation for quality that it was automatically worth 50 cents less than wheat sold directly across the border in Kansas. With more emphasis on milling and baking qualities, that discount disappeared, even while yield potential increased.

“If somebody tells you it’s impossible to develop wheat varieties that yield and are good quality, that’s just patently false,” he said. “Our number one performing wheat right now is Langin, and it has awesome milling and baking quality.”

Another thing that galvanized him was a statement he heard as big corporate players like Syngenta and Monsanto were starting to invest heavily in commercial wheat breeding programs. Prior to that, hard winter wheat development had largely been left to public programs at land grant colleges like CSU.

“It was being suggested at meetings that the wheat breeding of the future wouldn’t be done in the public sector, it would all be done by private companies,” Haley recalled. “I worked really hard to make sure that didn’t happen. Somebody said to me, 'People in the region like you, but they think you are really competitive.' Why was I like that? Because I was told private industry would take my job and that I would become irrelevant.”

In fact, many public programs are thriving. The adoption of sophisticated licensing agreements now allow for the exchange of germplasm and collection of royalties, which are reinvested into more research, a concept that originated in Colorado. Meanwhile, Haley has watched as private companies were bought out, merged and consolidated, in some cases turning their attention away from wheat toward more lucrative crops.

There’s another aspect, though, that makes the continuation of public breeding programs crucial.

“Who’s going to train the plant breeders of the future, who can then go into industry?” Haley asks. “If we don’t have universities doing that, who will?”

That partly explains why his job has been so demanding. “There’s a lot of pressure involved in being the wheat breeder. You have a lot of different bosses,” he said. “And you’ve got to teach. But that’s the wrong way to put that. You get to teach. But it all takes a lot of time.”

Haley clearly has a soft spot for teaching, mentoring and service. It goes back to the beginning of his career and explains why a city kid from Seattle, who dabbled in botany and then forestry, ended up as a prominent wheat breeder.

Haley initially got into plant breeding after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. As a graduate student at CSU, he intended to go back and help out in a developing country. His wife, another Peace Corps volunteer originally from Colorado, convinced him otherwise.

Sparsely populated eastern Colorado definitely has its challenges, but even the most rural outpost can’t rival what Haley experienced serving in one of the world’s 10th poorest countries. “I remember when I got back from Africa, just turning the light switch on and off and back on again. For 2½ years I lived with no running water and no electricity,” he explained.

Once he returned to the relative luxury of life in the states, he remained involved internationally, later assuming a seat on the board of the Borlaug Training Foundation, based at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

“This foundation was started to try to find a way to support the field-based hands-on training that takes place in Mexico,” he said. It’s held in the same location where internationally recognized scientist Norman Borlaug did much of his work to make crops more productive, a campaign now commonly referred to as the Green Revolution.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, but the training program named for him started even earlier, in 1968. “He talked a lot about, and wrote a lot about, the importance of training,” Haley recalled. “He saw it as one thing to develop a new kind of wheat, but you are also going to need people who know how to work with farmers. That’s not going to come from reading a book.”

“One of the highlights of my career has been going down to Mexico’s Sonoran Desert and interacting with the trainees,” he said. He has taken his own graduate students there, and he has also helped bring trainees from Afghanistan and Ethiopia to study in the graduate program at CSU.

“They just want to get training and improve themselves and improve agriculture,” he said.

The foundation recently got a new grant, sponsored by the Islamic Development Bank, to provide additional outreach, training and mentoring.

“I met with my mentee a few weeks ago. He’s from Turkey,” Haley said.

Sometimes lost in the highly competitive world of modern variety development is that growing wheat is about growing food and trying to ensure that no one goes hungry, Haley observed.

“When a farmer has said to me, 'We don’t want to share our germplasm with other people across the world,' it kind of makes me angry, because we’re one world,” he said. “Me, or my successor, working with young agriculturalists from a developing country, I don’t feel like that’s a threat to the wheat farmer in Colorado. I think that raises all boats. In the end, people just want to eat, you know, and we have an obligation to do whatever we can to help. At universities we’re not just provincial, we’re global in terms of what we focus on.”

Being of service is an ethos Haley is taking with him into retirement. While he bought a ski pass for the first time this winter, he’s also volunteering at his local food pantry, which he described as “a remarkable experience,” and doing other forms of community service.

He takes inspiration from an article he read a few months ago in The Atlantic, written by American Enterprise Institute founder Arthur Brooks, who suggests stepping aside before your inevitable professional decline and devoting your later years to spirituality, family and service.

While Haley is responsible for releasing dozens of outstanding varieties, the main message he emphasized during an interview was something that has started appearing on T-shirts and yard signs during these increasingly strident and polarizing times: Be kind.

“Be as nice to my successor as you were to me,” he said, referencing Esten Mason, who was hired to replace him at CSU after previously working on soft wheat at the University of Arkansas. “After a field day, pat the new breeder on the back and say, we appreciate what you do. That has meant more to me than anything.”

“One farmer sent me a text that read, 'You need to understand that the work you do helped my family stay in business,'” Haley added, his voice choking up a bit. “So give them a little encouragement sometimes. Tell them how important their work is. For me, that did more than anything to keep me going.”