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Bread Lab: For the love of local grains

Sep 3rd, 2017 | Category: Features

by Mary Vermillion

Research labs don’t typically draw crowds. But when the subjects are wheat and grains that promise the revival of a piece of Skagit Valley’s agricultural heritage, you’re bound to develop a following. And sooner or later, you’re going to need a bigger lab. Such is the case for Washington State University’s Bread Lab in Burlington, which in August celebrated the grand opening of its 12,000-square-foot facility at the Port of Skagit with more than 400 in attendance.

Dr. Stephen Jones looks over the test fields. In addition to finding wheat and grain varieties that thrive in the Valley’s maritime climate, Bread Lab researchers are working with businesses to rebuild the grain economy. Photo by Kim Binczewski

Dr. Stephen Jones looks over the test fields. In addition to finding wheat and grain varieties that thrive in the Valley’s maritime climate, Bread Lab researchers are working with businesses to rebuild the grain economy. Photo by Kim Binczewski

Led by Dr. Stephen Jones, The Bread Lab is equal parts research facility and test kitchen, combining science, culinary art and innovation to advance the use of whole grains. Jones and WSU graduate students work with local farmers, bakers and processors to identify wheat, barley, buckwheat and other small grains that perform well in the field and have the best flavor and nutrition for baking, cooking, malting, brewing and distilling.

Soon after the 2008 opening of its original 600-square-foot location, Bread Lab leaders realized they would need more space.  “We had so many visitors,” Jones recalled. “We wanted the community to be involved, to visit and to participate.”

The new facility, which includes labs, a milling room, meeting spaces, a professional kitchen and the King Arthur Baking School, makes that possible.

By doubling its footprint, the Lab can “do more than one thing at a time. We can be teaching in one room, doing research in another,” Jones said.

On a recent summer day, a visitor from Pakistan was in the kitchen baking loaves of bread with new wheat varieties while down the hall grad students worked on research projects. Local master gardeners and the Skagit Community Foundation board of directors are among the groups using the Lab’s new meeting rooms. This mix of activities “100 percent reflects the goal of community coming together,” Jones said.

Community has been part of The Bread Lab’s story from the start. “My first day at work, I met with Patsy Martin from the Port. The second day, I had breakfast with growers. We haven’t stopped talking since,” said Jones, who moved from eastern Washington to head up The Bread Lab’s community-based agriculture.

He added, “we can help farmers first and keep the value where it’s produced. We’re reclaiming the beauty and tradition of raising our own grain for our own community.”

A recent class at the King Arthur Flour Baking School (above) measures ingredients. Local wheat and grains are used and tested in a variety of baked goods (below).  Photos by Kim Binczewski

A recent class at the King Arthur Flour Baking School (above) measures ingredients. Local wheat and grains are used and tested in a variety of baked goods (below).
Photos by Kim Binczewski

Locals welcomed the newcomer from the east side of the state. “That’s one thing I’ve found coming here. The cooperation and camaraderie with farmers (is remarkable),” Jones said. “Someone like John Roozen (Washington Bulb Company) has a beautiful family tradition. He wants to keep his land in production and takes that very seriously.”

For his part, Roozen, who uses Bread Lab wheat as a rotation group, calls it “a true success story of farmers, researchers, the university, and good ideas coming together. If we want the Valley to stay in agriculture, we need to continue to be innovative.”

The region has a history of wheat farming. In the 1800s, visitors to the Skagit Valley saw wheat not tulips in the fields. It was one of the first things European settlers planted because it was familiar and needed for their animals and family’s nutrition.

As wheat production and milling shifted from regional to larger commercial operations, wheat diversity declined and the industry moved to uniform flours with a longer shelf life. What was lost was much of the flavor and nutrition of flour and the products made with it. Researchers at The Bread Lab are dedicated to making regional grain farming viable again.

“We can easily yield three times what the state of Kansas (grows in wheat),” Jones said. The Skagit Valley is “a beautiful place to grow, it’s just not always simple.”baked goods KAF BS web

He added, “We’re plant breeders first. We’re not working with heritage and heirloom (strains). We like them, but we improve them so we can make the yields (work from a price point).”

In addition to finding wheat and grain varieties that thrive in the Valley’s maritime climate, Bread Lab researchers are working with businesses to rebuild the grain economy. They need farmers to grow the grains. Mills to grind it. And buyers to purchase it and create products that consumers love. Their location at the Port of Skagit allows the lab to create a food campus with end users like a maltster, flour mill and brewery within walking distance.

King Arthur Flour is among the companies that are part of the equation. The Vermont-based, employee-owned company was one of the first financial supporters of The Bread Lab and the annual Grain Gathering held at the facility. They also run The Baking School at the Lab; their second such school in the country.

“Anytime there’s a possibility to learn more and to do more around grains and baking, we want to be part of it,” said Susan Miller, King Arthur’s Baking School director. “It’s exciting to think of possibilities that open up when you consider the characteristics of regional grains and different flavor profiles.”

Barley and wheat plots. Photo by Kim Binczewski

Barley and wheat plots. Photo by Kim Binczewski

Professional and home bakers can enroll at the Baking School. Check the company’s website for upcoming classes. Since its opening in November 2016, more than 1,000 students have passed through the Burlington-based Baking School. Many are local, but students come from across the United States and abroad.

Local companies that are partnering with The Bread Lab include Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham and its South Nut Tap Room located on the Port of Skagit campus.

“When anyone drinks our Chuckanut seasonal ales (British IPA, Filtered American Wheat, Alt Bier, Porter) or our Mexican Style Lager in the summer as part of the seasonal lager line they drink the fruits of (The Bread Lab’s) labors,” owner Mari Kemper said. “The farmers’ labor, the malting house’s labor and then our labors!”

The Lab inspired Mari and her husband Will to open their second location in the Valley. “We want to be in the circle of innovative agriculture related products, it’s exciting to us that we know our farmers that grow the grain, we know the developers of the seeds for the farmers, and we know the maltsters that malt the grain that we use in our beers.”

National companies such as Clif Bar and Chipotle Mexican Grill also call on Bread Lab researchers to add whole grains to their products.

“Accessibility is a big part of what we do,” Jones said. “Good food should be less expensive than crappy food. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I truly believe we can have good food available to everyone. That’s a good goal to have.”

 

For more information

Bread Lab staff are planning additional open houses and community events. For information, visit thebreadlab.wsu.edu. To register for upcoming baking classes at the King Arthur Flour baking school, visit kingarthurflour.com/bakingschool.

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