Growing a Regional Grain Economy

Plant breeding at The Bread Lab with Steve Lyon

Over spring break, four AFE students had the opportunity to visit Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the WSU Bread Lab and explore the regional grain economy that has grown in the Skagit Valley as a result of their work.

The Bread Lab and Tufts Food Lab
The Team!

Nestled between the snowcapped Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean, lies the lush and surprisingly sunny Skagit Valley. A bright sea of daffodils flanked long country roads and friendly bovines nodded hello as we made our way to meet with plant breeder Dr. Stephen Jones and his team at the Washington State University (WSU) Bread Lab. The Bread Lab is a special place where plant breeders, growers, and bakers have been pioneering new wheat and barley lines while simultaneously growing a robust local grain economy. In the commodity grain market where yield and uniformity are king, the Bread Lab is breaking rank by pursuing varieties based on flavor, function, and nutrition. Their efforts have reinvigorated fields in the valley that generally grew grains in rotation either as cover crops or for livestock feed. Instead, they now produce a valuable and local whole grain product that bakers, millers and maltsters now covet across the country.

Daffodils in Skagit Valley, WA
Daffodil frolicking (from left: Claire Loudis, Alex Stern, Nayla Bezares, Tetyana Pecherska)

Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome and an action-packed agenda for our visit. Our first order of business of course was to taste the famous whole-wheat croissant that Dr. Jones had taunted us with during the Friedman seminar last semester. Without a moment to spare, we dove into a series of visits with local farmers, millers, bakers, maltsters, brewers, economic developers, and food access advocates. During our meetings, we were inundated with insight and inspiration. We scrambled to take down every morsel of wisdom in our notebooks to be decoded later in brainstorming sessions on ways we can ourselves redefine the food system to be more resilient and equitable. Before too long, we found ourselves breaking experimental bread with our Bread Lab colleagues where we reflected together on our transformative experience. We left galvanized to bring back lessons learned to share with our community at Friedman and beyond. Below are a few of our stories from the week:

Skagit Valley Malting
Skagit Valley Malting

“Our visit to the Skagit Valley was much more than a walk through daffodil fields. It was more than walking through a library of wheat berries and choosing the perfect one to mill and bake a unique whole grain cupcake. Even more than a tasting of malted barley products (read: beer!) that had been harvested and processed in the very fields we drove by. Our visit to the Skagit Valley was a firsthand experience in organized food systems development. As we interviewed key players in this community development process, it was evident that Steve Jones’ proposition of covering fallow fields with wheat was successful because he was able to approach both farmers and developers to promote successful crops AND a local industry that could inject resources back into the system.”
-Nayla Bezares, AFE ‘19

Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley, WA
Cairnspring Mills

“ ‘You cannot affect a system unless you understand the process.’ Sitting in the Washington Bulb boardroom, we learned from owner, John Roozen, how tulips grow. Mr. Roozen described how his family came to the Skagit Valley from Holland generations before with just a briefcase full of tulip bulbs. Today, Washington Bulb is one of the largest flower producers in the US with 70 million blooms per year and the most impressive tulip and daffodil operation I have ever seen. Mr. Roozen walked us through massive coolers of varied temperatures that he used to manipulate the lifecycle of flower bulbs and enhance his operation. Similarly, we learned that the entire Skagit Valley grain economy was developed by manipulating an existing system. For years, farmers had been growing “bad” wheat in rotation to support their more profitable seed crops. That was, until Steve Jones and the WSU Bread Lab began working with farmers and chefs to develop and grow improved wheat varieties in the valley. One of the farmers was John Roozen who, along with an extraordinary flower operation, now grows 600 acres of wheat. On our trip to Skagit Valley, not only did we learn about the process a tulip bulb goes through to bloom, but we also learned about the process that the Skagit Valley went through to self-organize and create a thriving grain economy.”
-Claire Loudis, AFE ‘18

“What impressed me most is the ingenuity and synergistic relationships that helped cultivate a resilient grain economy in the Skagit Valley. Sparking a new movement in the food system takes innovation and whole lot of grit. The lack of infrastructure in the US fit for small and mid-scale processing and production is a common limitation. The maltsters described to us in detail how they designed and built a revolutionary all-inclusive system that allows them to wash, steep, germinate, and kiln grains all in one tank – in other words, gain complete control over the malting process. The local mill also had to get creative in outfitting their operation by sourcing equipment from several different countries such as Poland, Denmark, and Ethiopia. Kevin Morse from Cairnspring Mill likened the process to a ‘barn raising,’ which is an apt description for the cultivation of the grain economy in Skagit as a whole.”
-Tetyana Pecherska, AFE ‘19

Bread Lab baking with Julia Berstein
Baking with Bread Lab experimental baker Julia Berstein

“Visiting the Bread Lab at WSU was transformative. It was one of the first times that I was able to see a local food system functioning on such a small scale. Almost all of the stakeholders were situated within a 30-mile radius. It was clearly a community; a group of people with differing ideas, but common goals. What was striking about this community and this trip was the diversity of the stakeholders. Each felt strongly about transforming grains into something more positive for Washington. What was interesting, is that each player had a different set of morals and values by which they lived and worked. They worked together almost every day, but their motivations were not necessarily the same. For example, the miller felt strongly about the environmental impact of agriculture while the maltsters were dedicated to developing new technologies and products in their field. Currently grain is just a commodity, often grown for feed, but these stakeholders consider it to be more. They had high hopes for transforming the wheat that they grow into a product that would invigorate the economy and fuel a movement in which consumers care more about the foods they eat.”
-Alexandra Stern, AFE PhD

It’s safe to say, we left with both our minds and bellies full. The synergy among us was boundless – so much so that we essentially developed a full-fledged proposal for a consulting group called ‘The Bread Girls.’ One of our key takeaways was what a role just one person in a community can play in cultivating a lasting impact in the food system. The catalyst in the Skagit Valley was the ever-humble Steve Jones. His ability to gain trust and inspire a diversity of stakeholders was integral in cultivating a resilient regional economy. Inspired by the work of Dr. Jones and his team, we have teamed up with faculty at Friedman to establish the Tufts Food Lab – a space where not only research and practice intersect, but where we can foster intention to improve nutrition, sustainability, diversity, and regional economies. Students should stay tuned for ways they can get involved in the near future. To support our efforts, please consider contributing and sharing our crowdfunding campaign. The funds raised will support our time in the field where we hope to actively dig into our grain research directly alongside our partners.

The Tufts Food Lab is a new initiative established by Friedman graduate students and faculty as a place to advance nutrition research and education by tapping into the expertise of diverse food system developers and stakeholders. The goal is to prepare students for future careers through research opportunities and hands-on field experience.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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