During a recent education session at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) in Las Vegas, Dr. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, shared details of a new project to expand their innovative facility for wheat and grain breeding that is taking place now and will be ready by early next year. The Bread Lab is currently undergoing a major renovation into a 12,000-square-foot building at the Port of Skagit (Washington).
In addition to an expanded Bread Lab, the new quarters will house a rheological lab, the King Arthur Flour Baking School at the Bread Lab, and a milling lab. Future plans include a professional kitchen overseen by James Beard Best Chef Northwest Blaine Wetzel, and a malting, brewing and distilling micro-lab led by Matt Hofmann, CEO and master distiller of Westland Distillery, and Will Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen.
Financial support for The Bread Lab comes from such notable companies as Clif Bar, Chipotle and Patagonia, which Jones says is now in the food business and is striving to do in food what the company has accomplished in clothing: create exceptional products while being positive environmental stewards.
For the financial supporters, he says, it’s also about pushing for a better life for local communities. “We do nothing in our lab that makes a Clif Bar taste better,” Jones says, “but we help train the next generation of wheat and grain breeders to move forward in our field.”
Jones gets asked all the time whether they are trying to change the modern agriculture system. He is quick to point out that his team deals with thousands of acres of wheat, not tens of millions (the US grows more than 60 million acres of wheat per year). “We have no illusion that things are going to change on a grand scale. We’re not going to feed the world,” he says. “We just want to help communities add value. We see these little grain communities are starting to pop up all over the country.”
Jones, who learned to bake from his Polish grandmother, carries a special fondness for the retail bread business and, as director of The Bread Lab, works with many of the nation’s top bakers, including Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco.
One innovative wheat farmer who works with Jones is Tom Hunton, who says it helps to have the voices of the “rock star bakers” behind his evolving movement, and their scope is growing. Places like Philadelphia and New York City are embracing whole grain breads produced with these new wheat varieties. “What is really exciting is you sort of become a local food bank,” Hunton says. “We’re now serving nine school districts in our area. And we’re able to bring some of these grains to places where we didn’t think they would grow before.”
Jones points out the job of wheat breeders (and they also look at other grains) is to sort through variations and make it work for the farmer, first, “and then find uses for it. We can now bring the farmers, bakers, brewers and local communities together. They help inform us what flavors, what functionalities are desired. Our job as public researchers is to keep the value where it’s produced within communities.”