The Bread Lab

The first time I heard The Bread Lab’s Dr. Steve Jones speak was in 2014 near Coupeville with a gathering of bakers for Whidbey Island Bread. I had to fight back tears when he spoke of the wheat-growing history on Whidbey Island alone, not to mention all of western Washington and Oregon. Dr. Jones takes his job as a public servant seriously. He has a program now funded in perpetuity, free of uncertainty from University ups & downs, but sweeps floors, makes lunch all while working alongside celebrity bakers and big name philanthropists.

Dr. Steve Jones leading a tour after prepping our lunch

Dr. Jones IS The Bread Lab, Washington State University Extension’s plant breeding program, with the focus on grains: wheat, barley, buckwheat and other small grains. The official mission of The Bread Lab reads:

Our Mission: The programs of the Bread Lab work to breed and develop publicly available varieties of grains and other crops that will benefit farmers, processors, and end-users while enhancing access to affordable and nutritious food for all members of our communities.

Dr. Jones, senior scientific assistant Steve Lyon, managing director Kim Binczewski, doctoral thesis students, test bakers and chefs work with farmers, millers and malters to grow the best grains in Walla Walla, Winthrop, the Skagit Valley (sorry the alliteration ends there) and all over the Northwest Region for disease resistance, production levels, flavor and baking performance. They are working to re-establish the west side of the Cascades as a viable grain-growing region, giving potato, bulb and other farmers something to grow in that off-season field resulting in a money-making crop, rather than simply fodder or compost.

As you walk the hall from lab, past milling room, kitchen and King Arthur Baking School classroom, the wall is lined with WSU plant-breeding firsts, photos, plaques and grain samples. Skagit 1109 is one of the most exciting to me.

Skagit 1109

This wheat isn’t a single seed, but more like a collection of seeds, never hybridized. This grain will adapt to wherever it is grown, giving a different end product, one unique to that region. 1109 grown by either Dan Barber in New York or Dave Hedlin in the Skagit Valley won’t give up the same flour, but one that truly tastes of terroir. Even year to year within the same region growing conditions can result in a different end product. 2017 1109 grown in the Willamette Valley was a flour with 9-10% protein. 2018 resulted in a much stronger flour, with protein levels at 11-13% (remember 15% is really high). What I find most fascinating about this grain is that it was never evaluated, never intended for use as a typical white flour. Most other wheat grain is grown for its use as white flour first, with whole grain attributes second if considered at all. Skagit 1109 is kind of like magic.

Just through the storage room at the end of the hall, there is another room, smaller but wall to wall, most of the floor space taken as well, with seeds. Small jars to 40 pound bags, seeds with names, usually of the breeder, sometimes the given varietal name, all in storage. History in jars. Life in jars.

The seed room

There has been much written about The Bread Lab and I’ll leave a few links. Dr. Jones is passionate about his purpose, and as with any visionary, infectious. Whether attending a class with the Bread Bakers Guild of America, attending the Grain Gathering, reading another article in praise of The Bread Lab, or simply baking with Skagit 1109, Yecora Rojo, Club Pastry Flour or another flour supported by The Lab, I’m inspired to do better, be better, bake better, to serve others the way Dr. Jones does. How lucky we are to have this place in our backyard.

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