VolunteerWheatHere is another good class I took at Focus on Farming– Growing Wheat in Western Washington. I skipped the livestock track that session because I’d already heard the talk. This is another class where I wasn’t sure if it would be any good, and the topic isn’t really relevant to me, but I found it really interesting!

It was taught by Dr. Stephen Jones, a WSU wheat breeder who works at the Mt. Vernon research center. He started out by comparing farm revenue in Eastern vs. Western Washington.

  • Skagit county (Mt. Vernon area) has 1215 farms, $256M in revenue
  • Snohomish county (Everett area) has $126M in farm revenue
  • Whatcom county (Bellingham area) has $326M in farm revenue
  • Whitman county (Pullman area) has 1247 farms and $254M in revenue
  • 8 counties on the I-5 corridor == 11,000 farms, $1.2B in revenue

So, Western WA is no slouch in farming compared to the more well-known-for-farming Eastern half. And it turns out wheat grows  really well in the West- it’s a cool season grass that likes long, mild days, and lots of water. Barley and oats are also very suitable to our climate. Wheat is not new to WW- 100 years ago, a farm on Whidbey Island set a world record for wheat production, at 119 bushels per acre! A century ago! By comparison, “breadbasket” Kansas today produces around 45 bushels per acre.

Wheat is still commonly grown in Skagit, often used in rotation with potatoes and tulips. And even “urban wheat” is becoming popular amongst backyard chicken owners. Most of the commercial wheat grown in Washington leaves the state as a commodity. There was a time when every town had a granary; but most of those are either gone, or converted into curiosities, like the Mt. Vernon granary, which is now a fancy restaurant and cluster of boutique shops. So, that creates a challenge for grain storage in our region. Drying grain is also a problem (which Snohomish county tried to address by obtaining a dryer, which is struggling to find enough use).

imageDespite these challenges, grain production on the West side  is starting to increase again, with people experimenting with a variety of grains, from wheat to quinoa. Though “big grain” requires gigantic harvesters; nowadays, many farms here are planting smaller acreages, creating demand for smaller equipment. Smallish, used harvesters can often be found for a few thousand dollars. The modest-sized John Deere 6600 is still commonly available and easy to service. Some very small, specialized harvester models are also available, but are very expensive.

The main challenge to wheat growing in the Northwest is stripe rust. It causes the grains to shrivel. These grains are poor for creating flour for baking, as bakers like low protein, high starch wheat. However, the shrunken grains resulting from stripe rust are higher in protein and make excellent livestock feed, and are also suitable for brewing and distilling.

Dr. Jones is doing a lot of research to find and develop wheat varieties that do well in our Western climate- something that hasn’t been done before. Varieties which thrive best in Eastern WA don’t produce as well in Western WA, and vice versa. Semi-dwarf varieties are ideal here, because they don’t tend to fall over in our heavy rains.

imageDr. Jones isn’t trying to compete with “big grain”- he feels there is already plenty of tasteless wheat flour on the commodity market! SmileHe is working to breed new wheat varieties which are in demand by artisan bakers. He shared a quote from one famous baker who experimented with some Skagit wheat flour, and described the resulting bread using words that wine connoisseurs usually use. That is where he feels there is an emerging market, is with these high-end bakeries, and the Localvore Movement.

Dr. Jones breeds wheat the old fashioned way: by tediously hand-trimming the male or female germs away from the stem, and enclosing the wheat heads in a small plastic bag to control fertilization between two varieties. They have hundreds of small, square test plots in Mt. Vernon.

He is also experimenting with novel traits. He showed a photo of some wheat they bred that grows 6.5 feet tall. It ripens on the top ends, so can be harvested for the grain; but the bottom stalks stay green, so can be grazed afterwards. Possibly even a straw harvest can be taken after that. (Straw is very profitable.) And, it’s a perennial, so no need to till and re-plant! Pretty cool.

Some of their better performing wheat experiments are producing 170 bushels per acre in Skagit county on their test plots. 70 bushels is about average for our whole state. Who knew that Western WA has so much promise as a bread basket region?