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Drawing on the Past for Organic Grains

Consider it a case of “back to the future.” WSU scientists are looking to the past as they research methods and varieties for improving the viability of organic grain production for Northwest growers.

According to WSU Crop and Soil scientist Kevin Murphy, between the 1840s and 1955 there were at least 163 varieties of wheat grown in the Northwest under organic conditions.

“None of these varieties could compete with today’s modern varieties,” says Murphy. “However, they each potentially possess valuable traits that could significantly enhance the disease resistance, weed competitiveness, and productivity of modern varieties—traits that might be highly effective under organic farming conditions.”

Murphy and WSU wheat breeder Stephen Jones evaluate crosses of these historical wheat varieties with modern varieties through the WSU Organic Wheat Breeding Program, the first such program in the nation.

WSU wheat breeder Steven Jones
WSU wheat breeder Steven Jones

Jones shifted his base of operation to western Washington when he was named director of the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center. He is now working with local growers to bring back what was once a widespread west side wheat-growing industry. He has trials underway at the NWREC and on a number of local organic farms to feed what he sees as a strong and increasing demand for local organic wheat.

“Most bakers are having to get their organic wheat from Canada, and they’re looking for local sources,” he says. “People today want local everything, and that now extends to grains. I believe the market will remain strong.”

Jones is collaborating with other Northwest scientists and growers to concentrate on wheat breeding for the coastal climates of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and even Alaska.

“The first step is determining the best varieties for growing in coastal climates and conditions, and then to breed for varieties especially well-suited to those conditions,” says Jones. “We want to test in actual farm environments and conditions.”

On-farm trials are also a critical component of organic wheat research being conducted by WSU in eastern Washington under a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. That research is focusing on methods for successfully transitioning to organic grain production in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

WSU agronomist Diana Roberts, a member of the research team, says on-farm testing is integral both to conducting the research and sharing the results.

“We’re working with a group of innovative farmers who help with the research, then teach others based on the outcomes,” says Roberts. “The growers identify the problems, and the team designs a replicable research protocol designed to remedy the problem. The growers do the research in large plots under real farm conditions using their own equipment, and the team helps analyze the results.”

In Pullman, soil scientist Patrick Fuerst, principle investigator on the grant, is researching surface tillage methods effective at eliminating weed seedlings while minimizing soil disturbance in order to reduce erosion.

“Weeds are the biggest challenge, and the traditional organic approach using intensive tillage practices leads to serious wind and water erosion in our area,” says Fuerst.

He is also experimenting with effective rotation crops for transitioning land to organic production. One such crop is alfalfa, a time-honored, traditional crop which is excellent for fixing nitrogen and is still in high demand for forage.

Roberts says that effective organic techniques all tend to draw on the approaches used in earlier days.

“In a way, we’re going back to techniques used by our grandparents and great-grandparents before the advent of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer.”

By Denny Fleenor, CAHNRS Marketing, News, and Educational Communications