The I. A. Watson Wheat Research Centre at Narrabri is the main field testing site for crops being developed by the University of Sydney. This was established as the Northwest Wheat Research Institute by the NSW State Wheat Improvement Committee in 1968 and the University of Sydney was invited to manage it.
The Breeding program at the Centre has produced a large number of rust-resistant wheat varieties in the Prime Hard and Australian Hard marketing classes. The Narrabri plains allow the plants to reach their best potential and assist the selection process with yield and disease trials.
In recent times the focus of the research conducted at the Institute has changed. The major wheat breeding program was transferred to AGT who are still based on site and the Institute’s research has concentrated more on pre-breeding aims for cereal breeding in North-West NSW.
Pulse breeding has been occurring at the Institute since 2000 with these crops being bred as options for local farmers in their rotation plans.
The University of Sydney has a long history of successful wheat breeding and University bred cultivars helped establish the wheat industry in northern NSW and have underpinned the industry ever since. Wheat breeding at the University has been centred at Narrabri on the north-western plains of NSW since 1961 when the North West Wheat Research Institute was opened by the then Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Robert Menzies. The land was purchased in 1958 by the Wheat Research Foundation, then representing some 30,000 wheat growers, through the auspices of the NSW Wheat Research Committee. At the time, the University of Sydney had been successfully breeding wheat in the region for more than 40 years under the leadership of Professor WL Waterhouse and it was a logical step to invite the University to administer the site and conduct wheat breeding and wheat research for the benefit of wheat growers in NSW. Wheat breeding at the time the Institute was established was overseen by Professor IA Watson and the Institute was renamed the IA Watson Wheat Research Centre in 1977. This was later modified to the IA Watson Grains Research Centre to reflect the expanding research focus. Dr NF Derera joined the Institute in 1961 a wheat breeder and become Director of the Institute in 1973. Dr Derera went on to release 11 wheat varieties before his retirement in 1981. Dr Frank Ellison, a former student of Dr Derera, then assumed control of the wheat breeding program and went on to release another 10 wheat cultivars before his death in 2002. Soon after Frank’s death the wheat breeding program was commercialized and the germplasm is now owned by Australian Grains Technologies.
The University of Sydney wheat cultivars have had a significant impact on wheat production in Australia. Cultivars such as Gamenya (released in 1960) were also widely grown outside NSW and others, such as the Sunco, Suncea, Sunbri and Sunvale series became benchmarks for flour quality in the elite prime hard classification targeting high value export markets. University cultivars developed a reputation for excellent rust resistance, the single biggest biotic constraint in the northern region, and are still the benchmark for resistance today.