By Steve Brown
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – For more than 30 years Steve Jones has been breeding wheat for yield and disease resistance. Now he has found a new characteristic: flavor. Jones and his fellow researchers at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwest Research and Extension Center have focused on finding a wheat that can meet the particular needs of growers on the wetter west side of Washington. A nearby farmer grew out a crop, which was milled and delivered to a chef with 35 years’ baking experience. The baker said it was the best flour he had ever had, saying it had “chocolaty overtones with a hint of spice.” ”I had always heard tons per acre, but never flavor,” Jones said. “We’re discovering terroir in something as exciting and as mundane as small grains.” Terroir — a term usually used for wines — is the effect of locale and climate on flavor characteristics.
During a field walk through the sprawling research farm, members of the research team described how, for the first time ever, they are breeding varieties of grain specifically for Western Washington. Grain had previously been primarily a rotation crop, but with a growing demand for local food, “We’re looking for what type of values can we keep here for our farmers,” Jones said. From the 40,000 wheat varieties grown at Mount Vernon, the focus has been on minimizing the impact of stripe rust and finding which management practices work best in the maritime climate.
Doctoral student Karen Hills described a survey of 73 bakers in the region who use from 80 pounds of flour a year to 1.5 million pounds. The response of “tentative enthusiasm” reflected bakers’ concern over the lack of an established supply chain. Wheat grows quite well on the west side of the Cascades. Jones described a farm on Whidbey Island that grew 119 bushels per acre of the hard wheat “Red Russian.” He contrasted that with the 45-bushel average in Kansas. ”We’re concentrating on hard reds,” he said. “Craft and artisan bakers need a lot of functionality going on.”
Barley also gets a lot of attention. Brook Brouwer, another doctoral student, said regional breweries are a willing market for malting barley. ”That’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing,” he said. “Malting facilities won’t start up unless there’s a consistent supply.” Livestock owners — particularly organic dairies — are hungry for sprouted barley as an alternative high-energy feed for their cows. Pat Hayes, from the Oregon State University barley breeding program, works in collaboration with the WSU team. He said the goals are low-temperature tolerance, disease resistance and input use efficiency. Some recent and upcoming varieties are for public release, and others will have exclusive licenses. An open-source seed initiative keeps research viable worldwide, but “royalty income supports our continued breeding efforts,” he said.