Katie Nelson, a master's degree candidate in crop and soil sciences, surveyed Ethiopian farmers about highly sought-after traits in new wheat varieties in an attempt to quantify wheat-breeding priorities of specific populations, such as women farmers.

"Women play a big role in farming in Ethiopia, and I want to determine if their wants and needs were being met by current variety deployment strategies," Nelson said.

Nelson conducted a positioning study in Ethiopia in June 2011, interviewing more than 40 farmers and asking them to rate the importance of attributes of the wheat varieties they plant, including size and color of the grain, and price.

"This visit provided me the framework that guides the rest of the study," Nelson said. "And it was vital for me as [an] introduction not only to the farmers, but also to local customs and practices."

Armed with this data, Nelson determined six attributes farmers look for: number of tillers, density of kernels, size of grain (large or small), color of grain, rust disease resistance and price per 100 kg.

Returning to Ethiopia in January, Nelson interviewed more than 300 farmers, showing them pictures of 18 hypothetical varieties with differences in each of the six traits. The farmers ranked each of the six attributes on a 0-6 scale, 0 being "would never buy this seed" and 6 "would definitely buy this seed." This approach revealed the importance of each trait relative to the others.

Nelson will complete additional data analysis that will provide specific conclusions. She will create groups of farmers who share the same variety preference (e.g., desired color of the grain) and identify demographic traits they share. For example, the group that most highly values kernel density could be mostly women farmers.

"This information will be important, because rather than assume there are no differences in agronomic preferences for wheat varieties, we will have data to show where subtle differences could have an impact," Nelson said.

If Nelson determines female farmers or other demographic groups share trait preferences, breeders can target those specific groups or traits.

"It's important not to assume that all women farmers will prize the same traits; some women farmers are head of household, others are in male-headed households, and what they deem important might be different," she said.

As Nelson has sifted through the data, surprises have arisen.

"Before the interviews I thought that farmers would not choose the highest-priced variety as something they would purchase," Nelson said. "But in most cases they not only consume the wheat they grow, they also sell it. So they felt the highest price seed indicated the highest quality, which means higher prices at market."

Nelson's research is part of the Gender Initiative in the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, administered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development.

"Katie's important research is going to serve as a springboard for the next four years of the DRRW project. Engaging with women farmers -- and female scientists -- is a vital component of any future gains in food security and breeding techniques," said Sarah Davidson Evanega, associate director of DRRW and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics.

John Bakum is a communications specialist with International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.