Demand awaits west side wheat

Capital Press file Steve Jones, wheat breeder at Washington State University, describes the grain research on the stateÕs west side. He spoke during a June 2011 field day at the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Local focus drives interest in rebuilding grain infrastructure

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. -- A recent survey conducted by Washington State University Extension found plenty of demand for wheat grown on the state's west side.

Karen Hills, based at the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, found that 60 percent of the Western Washington commercial bakers surveyed said they are interested in purchasing locally grown wheat and flour. Those bakers now use 5 million pounds of nonlocal flour annually.

West side commercial bakers serve as one measure of consumer interest in locally grown wheat, but most must order wheat and flour from outside the region.

Eastern Washington has long been a dominant source of wheat, while on the west side of the Cascades, wheat has become primarily a rotation crop.

About 4,550 acres of wheat was harvested in Skagit County in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Snohomish County produced 750 acres that year. Other west side counties produced 3,800 acres of wheat.

Wheat used to be a major crop in the region, Don McMoran, of Skagit County Extension, said, but since production has shifted east.

"We've lost all our infrastructure," he said. "There used to be granaries and mills."

Stephen Jones, director of the WSU Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon and a wheat breeder, has been working to restore the industry, McMoran said, and new granaries and mills are in the works.

Before wheat is planted on a larger scale, "the price needs to be up," said Scott Yates, communications director at the Washington Grain Commission.

He said less than 1 percent of the state's wheat is grown in Western Washington's maritime climate, which exposes the crop to more disease pressure than on the east side of the state.

Jones and others have identified 163 wheat varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest between the 1840s and 1955. They are crossing these historical varieties with modern lines to come up with breeds best suited for growing in wet, cool coastal climates and conditions that can also resist diseases, compete with weeds and produce high yields.

Yates said many growers on the west side are growing organically, which can be cost-prohibitive on a large scale.

"Wheat simply has to give you the per-acre return," he said.

Hills said she also wanted to learn what bakers were most concerned about when considering future purchases of regionally produced flour, what the barriers would be for using it and what they considered "local."

Surveyed bakers listed consistency of flour quality, quality of flour, a reliable supply, price and flavor as their top five factors in purchasing regionally produced wheat and flour.

The top five barriers to a viable wheat economy in the region were cost, availability, delivery, quality (gluten and protein content) and climate.

Some of those factors would become more favorable as the volume of Western Washington flour processing increased, she said.

Asked to define "local" wheat, 43 percent of bakers answered wheat grown within the state, but Hills said she also received a wide range of responses, from within the Pacific Northwest to a specific county.

"It's not that we can't grow grains here," Hills said. "We have so many options for growing food here. There's an excitement around rejuvenating a tradition that was important here 100 years ago and reclaiming something that was lost."

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