Breeding a Thriving Regional Grain Economy
Dr. Stephen Jones, a professor of Crop and Soil Science and the director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University is a wheat breeder who never dreamed he’d be producing wheat varieties bearing “hints of chocolate” or “spicy overtones.” And yet, with his interest in flavor and commitment to championing farmers, it’s really no surprise that he’s found himself doing exactly that.
Under Dr. Jones’ direction, The Bread Lab at Washington State University is run in such a way that it “can put the farmer first and then figure out the best uses [for the wheat] later.” Dr. Jones explains that farmers in the Pacific Northwest used to grow wheat (and that yields for wheat in that area are actually incredibly high) but most of these wheat farmers switched to more lucrative crops during the industrial agriculture boom when wheat became a commodity crop. Dr. Jones is on a mission to once again put wheat farmers first and support a thriving regional grain economy in his area.
The Bread Lab works with the farmers who grow wheat and barley, maltsters, brewers and distillers who use it to make alcohol, millers who grind it into flour, and of course chefs and bakers who use this flour to cook and bake. In this way Dr. Jones and his team are helping area wheat growers grow and sell wheat they can actually profit from by bringing the growing, processing and selling back to the same space: their community. Dr. Jones emphasizes that The Bread Lab doesn’t preach ‘local’ because it’s a trendy buzzword, but simply because it makes economic sense for everyone involved. And while Dr. Jones and his colleagues deal exclusively in whole wheat flour he assures us they haven’t met a pastry that can’t be made from 100% whole wheat. “It just takes a little adjustment and wanting to do it.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Dr. Stephen S. Jones, a wheat breeder, and the director of the Bread Lab at the University of Washington. Dr. Jones is also a professor of crop and soil science. We are honored to have you with us, Dr. Jones.
STEPHEN JONES: Thank you, Theresa, and I’ll just—it’s Washington State University, not University of Washington.
TM: Washington State University. Oh, and I know the two of them are very different schools. But how wonderful to be able to say, “I’m the director of the Bread Lab.” Can you tell us a little bit about the Bread Lab?
SJ: Yes, and I love my job, I’ll tell you that first. In the Bread Lab, we’re wheat breeders first. So we work with farmers first and we make the wheat or barley or buckwheat—we work with a lot of different things, but we make that work for the farmer first. And we do non-commodity grains. And what I mean by that is we can put the farmer first and then figure out the best uses later, if that makes sense. So a commodity wheat is basically defined very strictly, and it limits what you can do with it in terms of breeding and different things.
So in the Bread Lab we first make it work for the farmer. And what that means is it’s going to yield to a high level with the lowest amount of inputs possible. So we do organic and we do conventional breeding. We do non-GMO, so we’ve never done GMO breeding in our program. We just do traditional techniques. So we make something work for the farmer—they can harvest it. And then we work directly with millers, bakers, maltsters, brewers, distillers, community members, professional chefs and bakers, and serious and not-so-serious home bakers, and find out the best uses for that crop—for that wheat, usually—with the whole notion that we’re going to keep the value where it was created, within our community. So if we harvest wheat or barley, we’re going to mill it and malt it right in the region and go from there. So it’s a wide-ranging program, and it’s fun, and I have graduate students, and I get to work with some fascinating people.
TM: I’m curious because I’ve been in the food industry for a long time, so I’m always following all the new, trying to follow the new things in the breeding. And I thought that there was kind of a change in the way breeders are looking now at the kinds of seeds that they’re breeding, and that they’re led by, I’m sure the famous chef Dan Barber is now trying to convince breeders, like you, to start thinking more in terms of the flavor and taste and how it cooks, not just how the farmer uses it. Are you seeing that in the wheat bread world?
SJ: We see it in our corner of it, for sure. And I was a commodity wheat breeder for many years, and I’ve know Dan Barber and other chefs for many years also. And what the commodity system, it has no room for flavor or nutrition, surprisingly, right? So it’s not necessary because that’s added or manipulated later.
But we started getting into flavor just about 10 years ago in a really big way, where we grew wheat—and I should say, we’re north of Seattle, so we’re not in a traditional wheat-growing area. It’s very cool and wet here. And 10 years ago we grew the first wheat crop here from our lab and we milled it here locally. It was organic and we took it to George DePasquale at Essential Baking in Seattle, and he said that the bread that he baked from it had a hint of chocolate, and spicy overtones, and it was the best bread that he’s tasted in 33 years of commercial baking.
TM: And it wasn’t wine that he was describing!
SJ: No, and what was fascinating, it was the first time that we had kind of put that to be a real notion, and then we just picked up the idea of there is a terroir in our wheat. Something as mundane as wheat, there’s a beautiful terroir and flavors that we can pull out of it. And we think, too, pretty strongly, that with flavor comes nutrition. So yes, there’s flavor in wheat. I should say we work with 100 percent whole wheat almost exclusively, and that’s where a lot of the flavor comes from, is from that whole grain. But yeah, it’s in wheat. And wheat took a while to catch up with a lot of the other foods in terms of finding flavor and nuance.
TM: Well, when I saw that you were in Skagit, and I’m from Portland, Oregon, so I know that whole temperate rainforest. It’s kind of wet for wheat out there, isn’t it?
SJ: It is, and what gets ignored on something like wheat is it’s a cool-season grass, so it actually does incredibly well here. So if you look at wheat in the nation, it’s pushed to places like Kansas and the Dakotas because you can’t grow anything else there, so those become the wheat growing areas. But actually, just to give an example, the average yield in Skagit County, where we are, is four times the yield that it is in Kansas for wheat. And that’s in certified organic fields. We can get upwards of 160 bushels per acre, and a bushel is 60 pounds. And in Kansas, the entire state, it’s less than 40 bushels per acre—and that’s under pretty chemically intensive agriculture.
So wheat is built for places like this. It just left areas like this and California and coastal Oregon and places because you can make a lot more off strawberries and tomatoes and things than you can off wheat. So wheat is pushed to the marginal parts of our country in terms of agriculture. I think that’s a real important point. It’s complicated to grow it here because it is so wet, so there may be diseases and things that come through, but that’s what breeders do, is help on that.
TM: Well, I’ve learned about this production practice that I think is in the commodity world called desiccating wheat, which is basically spraying it with glyphosate preharvest so that it dries it out faster. You’re not having to do that in your wet climate?
SJ: We don’t do that here, no. And what happens, too—and it’s sort of the power of plant breeding—is that if you, in your breeding program, use that as a technique, than that becomes the standard too. So if farmers are spraying something to kill their crop at harvest, and breeders then start breeding for that trait, then it becomes self-fulfilling. But for us, we don’t breed for that trait of having to burn it down it with some kind of herbicide. And we also select for resistances and things. So, again, to just have the minimum inputs required to grow a big and healthy crop is what we do. But we’ve never bred for having to spray something at the end to be able to harvest it.
TM: Thank you. This is exciting. And then you mill it there. Does the lab also sell your flour? I want that chocolatey one!
SJ: Yeah, with a hint of spice! And I should say, I’ve been growing wheat for a long time before that and I certainly never heard anybody say that and I never thought I would, right? Of chocolate and spice. But in the lab we don’t sell things. We have many mills, but we work with people that do that. So we facilitate—we work with small mills around the region and around the country, and then we work with bakers and maltsters and things like that. So we develop varieties, millers and bakers test these varieties, and then farmers test them, and then they all come together and see what they’re going to grow and where.
TM: Well, you know, as I see the climate change and everything around us, it seems like it’s wisdom for farmers now to probably be a little more diverse than they’ve been. So I’m curious about the economics. Maybe catering to people like me who have been keeping a starter for 30 years or whatever, and are always looking for these. Is there a market, you think, for a little bit of a—not the commodity price but a little bit higher-priced grain?
SJ: There is, yeah, and I think there’s a lot of points to that question. The first is that we work with farmers to grow wheat, as opposed to wheat farmers, if that makes sense. So in eastern Washington or Kansas you have farmers that are wheat farmers—that’s all they grow, basically. Here, our farmers grow 80 different crops of economic significance, which is quite diverse. And then at the bottom of that scale, in terms of the payback for them, would be wheat and barley. So maybe 79 and 80 are wheat and barley, in terms of their interest and also what they can get out of it.
They almost have to grow these grains to rotate and maintain healthy soils. So it breaks disease, it adds organic matter, things like that. So then the question is, now they almost have to grow these crops in very high-value farming areas—what is the return going to be on that? And we can see a bump in price, that the local mill will pay more than commodity. The local maltsters will pay more than a commodity price for barley or wheat. But we think that a mature system is one where the price isn’t going to limit who has access to these good foods.
So we don’t really believe in an elite type of system or a heritage or heirloom type of system where yields are low. But it’s great because it’s here, you know, local or regional. We don’t really believe in that. We believe that a mature system will bring the price point down to where more people can have access to it. And it’s a big part of what we do too, in the lab, is to make breads and things and demonstrate that, that we can bring it to more members of our community. We do very fancy, sort of, show loaves and things, very nice stuff, and that’s an important part of the whole range. But we also think accessibility is important, and that comes through yield and things like that in an area like this, if that makes sense.
TM: Yes, it does make sense. And actually I know the area pretty well, and whenever I think of it I think of berries—I don’t think about wheat. But you’re saying basically that wheat really is grown there and probably part of a rotation?
SJ: So I’ll put in perspective: the world’s record wheat yield of about 100 years ago was set on Whidbey Island, which is about 20 miles to the west of my office. That was 119 bushels per acre, 100 years ago. Again, the average yield today in Kansas is less than 40 bushels per acre. So 100 years ago we were getting three times the yield. So it does really, really well here.
The problem—not the problem but the complication—is that the land is worth so much here and the farming is whatever, compared to this wheat, right, which can be more simple than growing 80 different crops or having that potential. So the yields are high, the price can be a touch more but not much more, and then it fits in. And again, these are growers that will include that in a big part of a healthy rotation. And we feel that’s our job, too, is to make sure the farmers can keep a healthy soil, make some money.
And one of the farmers here, Dave Hedlin, likes to say that he used to grow wheat for fun and sometimes profit. I’m a scientist, not a business person, but that’s a pretty bad business model. So we help growers like that, so now they can sell it and actually make something off it. So the growers have to be part of this, and they are. And I think that’s a real important point, is we’re possibly unique in that we have just this great community coming together and working together on our food.
TM: That’s wonderful to hear, and it just makes me laugh because they just love experimenting with things. And sometimes it doesn’t even bring in the cash they need, but they can’t stop themselves with experimentation, many of them.
SJ: Sure. So then our job is to help that stay profitable. Yeah, exactly.
TM: And I think many of us have probably gotten a lot out of that. Some wonderful food came our way accidently because some farmer out there was intrigued and experimented with it. How about the maltsters? Do you also do experiments for beer?
SJ: We sure do. So, in fact, this morning right before this call, Westland Distillery, which is in Seattle, and they were last year voted the top American single malt whiskey in the world, they came through with 20 of their staff. So we work with maltsters, brewers, and distillers. And you can malt wheat, but primarily this would be a barley focus. Skagit Valley Malting is a new company that’s about a four-minute walk from my office, and they work with a number of brewers and distillers and they also work in a culinary sense. So sprouting and malting is good for us nutritionally as well. So there’s a whole range there.
And that’s what it’s doing with the malting and milling and the other facets, again, is keeping value where it’s produced. So we’re not just growing barley and sending it away, and then importing malt and then sending that away, and then making beer. All of that can be done right in our region. And it’s sort of a maturation of localness, right? That’s a word we don’t use much, is local, certainly in the groovy or clichéd way, right? We use it in a true regional manner, and it’s more about economics than it is about anything else, actually, for us.
TM: Well, we folks in the Pacific Northwest do like to think that we have some of the best beer and whiskeys.
SJ: For sure, for sure!
TM: It must be that wheat and barley and those other grains!
SJ: Well, what the brewers—and the brewers came to this before the bakers, honestly, in terms of, if you think of a brew pub, they want a new beer. You want an October beer, you want a spring one, you want a winter and summer. People that are really into beer want variation. And that variation, if it’s malt-forward, and we really favor the malt-forward beers as opposed to hop—over-hopping or whatever. So the malt-forward beers are getting a lot of attention. And the variation that’s available in malt then is equal to the variation that we’re seeing in the wheat for the flour and bread. So there’s just no end to new flavors that are coming. And colors—purple beers and things like that that have incredible flavors. And all that’s natural in the barley and the wheat. It’s really cool.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Dr. Stephen S. Jones, a wheat breeder and the director of the Bread Lab at the University of Washington [Washington State University]. We’re just hearing that Dr. Jones does more than just bread. The Bread Lab is also looking at malt for maltsters and distillers and so on.
Dr. Jones, I hope that you don’t mind, but if I could back up a little bit. I think probably a lot of our listeners are probably saying, “But what about this gluten intolerance?” Do you look at any of that when you’re looking at your wheat breeding? I think that for a lot of people, in what I’ve been reading now, is that you have this gluten intolerance—we understand celiac, but the gluten intolerance is very, kind of a mystery and hard to pinpoint what it is that’s actually happening there with folks and wheat.
SJ: Sure. And one thing I do is say people could go to our website, which they’d just search “WSU Bread Lab,” and we have several essays there that we’ve written, my students and I have written, on gluten intolerance and things like that. So that’s helpful in a way. It’s a big, huge question with big, huge answers. But there are a few ways to look at it.
For us, the first thing we do is we work with 100 percent whole wheat. So we don’t work with white flour. So if you start with white flour, you’ve already increased the gluten in your product. So if you take 100 pounds of wheat and make 70 pounds of white flour, that 30 pounds or that 30 percent that you took out, that has all the fiber, almost all the micronutrients, all the vitamins. It has basically everything we want in our foods, and it has no gluten. So that 30 percent that’s taken away, has been removed, now we’re left with 70 percent that we’ve concentrated the gluten. So that’s the first thing, that white flour is basically gluten and starch.
The next thing is, how are we eating our wheat and our flour? Is it in a frozen pizza dough? If it is, there’s probably a lot of things in there we don’t want to eat with our pizza, right? Dough conditioners, preservatives, things like that. So that’s one way to start looking at, now what are we putting into what we’re eating?
Another one is, has it been truly fermented? So we’ve taken time out as an ingredient, in our lives, of course, but also our food. And time is important in our food. So if we’re going to make bread and we go from dry flour to cooled and sliced in a plastic wrapper in just over two hours, that’s not bread. That’s something we call bread and it’s what we see in the grocery store. And now we’re going to add 20 ingredients that we don’t need, that our bodies don’t need, right? If you look at a grocery store bread, just turn it over and see how many ingredients over four or five there are.
TM: It’s terrifying.
SJ: It’s terrifying. So you need the four or five. So now we’re adding that in. But again, we’re taking out the time of fermentation, and fermentation is so important for us. And we’re learning that more and more, in all of our foods, but in bread in particular. During that fermentation process you’re breaking down the gluten, right? So you’re breaking down the gluten, you’re making the iron and zinc more available, and you’re converting some of the starches to sugars. All of those are positive things in terms of our digestion.
So those are a few there. And then, yes, what happens to that seed harvest and postharvest and on and on and on. There’s a lot of complications there. For me, as a wheat breeder, as one that doesn’t do GMO and doesn’t favor a lot of inputs in the field onto the crop, I don’t always believe that it’s the wheat itself. I believe it’s what we do with it, if that makes sense. That we—to give breeders credit for destroying something that’s been with us in an organized way for 30,000 years, and we’ve been farming it for 10,000 years, to say we can screw it up in 10 years is giving us a little too much credit, I think.
TM: And also it hasn’t been just 10 years. We’ve been at it for…we started doing alternatives to stone grinding, which really held the nutrients well—
SJ: Oh, for sure.
TM: —to more industrial steel mill grinding. Which brings up a question: Are you using mills nearby that use stone-ground?
SJ: So in our lab we have 12 different stone mills and we experiment with those. And then there’s Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in the area that has a stone mill. There’s Cairnspring Mills, which has a combination roller-stone system, and they sift. And then there’s Camas Country down in Eugene that does some stone milling. And there are a few around. But for us, in the lab, most of what we do is stone milling. And then, with the stone milling, then we figure out the best way to use that product.
And again, I’ll just go back to something as comforting as a molasses cookie that has a good crisp and snap to it, that we can do with 100 percent whole wheat. And the beauty there is it works, right? So we haven’t met a pastry that you can’t do at 100 percent whole wheat. It just takes a little adjustment and wanting to do it. And then you get into the more complicated things, breads and pastas, you can do it too. So we’ve just accepted the system of it has to be white flour because that works—that’s not true, certainly historically and even more recently—and that we’re going to take out everything that we want in it just to do that. So yes, we work with stone mills quite a bit.
And what I’ll say too is that a regional grain economy is coming on very strong right now across the country in places that have lost their wheat. About 100 years ago we lost almost 25,000 flours mills in this country. Today we have less than 200. That’s a fact, and it says so much you don’t even have to talk about it, right? I mean, we lost 25,000 flour mills, for holy cow, right? So those communities lost a lot there. They lost a contribution to their own food, within their own region; they lost the jobs; they lost a lot of things. They lost the local use for grains that they produced. And we centralized—it’s tough to find something as centralized as wheat processing, which would be milling and even baking, right?
So we’re part of a movement that hopes to decentralize some of these things, bring value back to our communities, whether it’s making flour tortillas or baguettes or beer or whiskey within your own region. And again, not just for the reason of local, but for the reason of our economies and folks within our community having good jobs. The director of the Port of Skagit, where we’re located, Patsy Martin, tell us that through the work of the Bread Lab in the past three years, 200 living-wage jobs have been created within a 10-minute walk of where we are.
TM: Well, that’s giving me a chill—that is so wonderful.
SJ: Yeah, and that’s malting, that’s milling, that’s brewing. We have a brewery, Chuckanut Brewery, that does 10,000 barrels a year.
TM: And I am absolutely confident that there’s no white flour that has any hints of chocolate or spicy overtones.
SJ: You’re not kidding!
TM: I’m confident about that!
TM: When you started talking about losing the 25,000 mills and the other mid-sized production places, it sort of matches that losing of the six million farmers we’ve also lost.
SJ: Right, that’s right, yeah.
TM: It is heart breaking.
SJ: It’s heart breaking. It’s this very aggressive centralization, and it’s very extractive, right? So if you have that few mills, you have that few facets of the industry, they’re going in and pulling out, right? So you’re going to go in and you’re going to pull out the production off of a few million acres, and then you’re going to take that somewhere. So you’re going to pay as little as possible for it—that’s the model. You’re going to do as little to it—that’s the model. And then you’re going to bring it back into those communities and sell it, right? At how many times? Two, three, four, ten times, right? What’s the value, and where has that value been dispersed to? We know where it’s coming from—it’s coming from our own communities. It’s going away and then something’s coming back.
And you’re from Oregon; up here in Washington, like Oregon, early in the 1970s we had the mantra of don’t export raw logs, right? And the idea was, we’re going to cut down our Cascades, send these logs away, and then someone’s going to make two-by-fours of plywood and sell them back to us, right? So wait a minute—we’ve lost our trees, and now we’re paying for something that was ours, and those jobs are centralized somewhere else. Same with wheat or anything else, right? We’re going to send it away and bring back flour. That doesn’t make sense for us economically.
TM: Yes, and/or for our taste buds either.
SJ: Huge, that’s right! So then, do we lose the idea that we like wheat that tastes this way, or pickles that taste that way, or what are our tastes within our region. And we have that, we have cuisine within our country, right? But it’s easy to lose too when everything tastes the same.
TM: Well, it’s been a true honor to be talking with you today. I learned so much and I am so grateful for this wonderful work that you’re doing. Thank you so much. Learn more about the Bread Lab: TheBreadLab.wsu.edu. And just a pleasure to be talking with you today.
SJ: Great, thanks, Theresa, it was fun.