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Fifty years after starting experiments on hybrid wheat, Wang Zhen was happy to see a bumper harvest this year.

The 80-year-old farmer from Linzhang county, Hebei province, rode his tricycle to the fields to watch machines reap a hectare of wheat over the past week.

The average yield of the hybridized wheat, a combination of wheat and couch grass, is 6.78 metric tons a hectare, 2.25 tons more than that of local varieties, Wang said, adding that peers think he is crazy.

Wang"s "wheat with massive ears" has 90 ears, more than twice as many as ordinary wheat. He said it also has a higher protein content and is more resistant to lodging - bending over at ground level - and diseases.

Wang, who has only a senior high school education, said he has discovered seven species of wild grass that can be hybridized with wheat. A third of the hectare of wheat he planted is wheat hybridized with couch grass and the rest is hybridized with other wild grasses.

Distant hybridization, between different species belonging to the same genus, is a global challenge that even scientists are not eager to attempt.

Wang said he was motivated by a government slogan in the 1950s to develop China into the world"s first country with a stable, high-grain yield after the country was hit by famine and feeding the population became a big problem.

"I wanted to breed quality wheat with high yields through hybridization, making my own contribution to the country," said Wang, who quit a post office job to work as a technician at a farm.

Wang first hybridized several varieties of wheat but failed to produce a variety with better yields. He then had the bold idea of hybridizing wheat with twitch-grass, which has bigger ears, strong stems and is more resistant to diseases.

Wang read all the genetics and breeding books he could get his hands on and continued experiments with hybridizing wheat despite derision from local farmers and scientists. He managed to produce his first hybrid wheat seed in 1977 and planted it in a flowerpot.

With continuous breeding and optimizing, Wang began to plant the hybrid wheat on a large scale in 2012 with the help of neighbor Chen Fulin, who offered a third of a hectare of land.

"I didn"t want to see him take his research to the grave," Chen said.

Developing hybrid wheat is costly. To cover land rental and labor costs, Wang planted greenhouse vegetables and kept bees. He also works part-time as a security guard.

Although yet to get official certification for nationwide promotion, Wang"s hybrid wheat has already played a role in Linzhang.

"Wang"s wheat is good breeding material. A hybrid wheat variety we"re promoting now has his wheat as the male parent," said Jin Guangxian, a senior agrotechnician from the county agriculture and animal husbandry bureau.

Despite decades of effort, there is still a long way to go for Wang"s hybrid wheat to be a quality variety that can be promoted on a larger scale, said a professor from China Agricultural University who requested anonymity.

"The formation of a quality variety needs strict examination procedures," he said. "You have to figure out how the variety should be planted, including seeding rate, water demands, and disease prevention and control."

For Wang, the biggest concern now is his health.

"If I pass away, no one will carry on my research," he said, adding that it takes at least six to 10 years to make achievements in plant breeding.

"I will donate my research to the country and let scientific institutions continue the research on distant hybridization," he said.

Xinhua

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