Backyard breeder: Retired Bellingham professor develops promising variety of spring wheat

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2014 

As an English professor, Merrill Lewis read books.

As a retired English professor, he reads wheat.

A Bellingham resident, Lewis focused on Western American literature and Pacific Northwest writers while teaching at Western Washington University from 1962 to 1994. He now spends his days studying the spring wheat he grows in his small garden in the Sehome neighborhood.

"Every day is going to look different," he said. "You've got to register the differences."

One of his varieties, called Edison, is being touted as a possible homegrown source of whole-grain flour for discriminating bakers.

"It's a beautiful grain," said Tom Hunton, the owner of Camas Country Mill in Eugene, Ore., where they planted about 100 acres of Edison this spring after a micro-test with an acre and a half. "We're giving it a good chance this year."

Varieties of wheat adapted for the marine Northwest, including some from Lewis, are the focus of the Small Grains Field Day to be held June 25 at the WSU Mount Vernon research center.

Steve Lyon, the senior scientific assistant at the center who studies Lewis' varieties, said self-taught wheat breeders are a rare breed, especially on the west side of the state, and a wheat researcher who is an 82-year-old professor in an urban setting is a breed unto himself.

"Especially one who has been as successful as he has been," Lyon said.

Lewis said Warren Kronstad, a renowned wheat breeder who was born in Bellingham and taught for many years at Oregon State University, once advised him to "read the wheat." That idea appealed to Lewis, who lacks formal training in plant science but has learned how to patiently search for wheat varieties that will thrive in the soils and climate west of the Cascades.

"I can think that way," Lewis said. "It's the visible features of the process that I can get to."

WHEAT IN HIS BONES

With a bachelor's and a master's degrees in history and a doctorate in English and American studies, Lewis is familiar with the importance of "place," including wheat fields, for Western writers. Place has played a large role in his own interest in wheat.

Lewis spent his childhood in a small town on the Oregon-Idaho line and attended high school in the Willamette Valley, between Portland and Salem. He wasn't into farming and his love of books would ultimately lead to his academic career, but he worked on wheat harvests, and chewed wheat, while he was a young man. The parents of his bride-to-be, Lorene, were Willamette farmers who, among other crops, grew wheat, so he helped them, too.

Lewis began his backyard research in the early '90s, starting with spring wheat provided by his son Hal, an agricultural researcher in Corvallis, Ore. At first, Lewis manually cross-breed varieties, carefully extracting pollen from one plant and sprinkling it onto another. He doesn't do that anymore, now that his hands are less steady with age, so he studies the progeny of his earlier work.

When it's time to scrutinize the dried cuttings from a season's growth, Lewis kneads the wheat heads inside a section of motorcycle inner tube, then pours the rough contents into a plastic gold miner's pan. He takes the pan outside to blow away the chaff with a quick puff, then labels and sorts the kernels for their size, weight, quantity, color and resistance to disease.

FIELD-TESTED, OVEN-TESTED

When a particular variety shows promise, Lewis sends a batch of kernels to Lyon for further analysis at the center in Mount Vernon. Lyon starts by growing a small quantity and observing the plants for robustness and other qualities. Varieties that do well are then grown on larger plots and the flour is tested in the center's Bread Lab for how it bakes, looks and tastes.

Varieties that pass the test taste are then planted to see how they grow in various locations and how they compare to other test varieties. It can take a dozen years for a variety to reach market.

"If it's going to fail, I want it to fail for us before it gets to a farmer," Lyon said.

Edison, a hard white spring wheat, produces a delicate loaf with a mild, buttery, sweet flavor, said Jonathan Bethony, resident baker at the Bread Lab.

"It almost performs like white flour," he said. "It's a good one for people who don't like whole wheat."

Hunton, the grower and miller in Oregon, has sent samples of Edison flour to notable chefs and bakers, hoping they might become customers. Meanwhile, school districts with marching orders to provide more nutritional lunches might turn to Edison for breads, muffins and pizza crusts, he said.

If the fans of Edison prove correct, Lewis, a hobbyist breeder lacking the big-budget resources of universities and agribusiness giants, could be the father of a niche wheat that's nutritional, tasty, and attuned to the cool Northwest.

"It's starting to catch on," Bethony said. "It's going to take time to change people's attitudes, but there's a lot of change on the rise, so to speak."

COMING UP

What: Small Grains Field Day, featuring wheat adapted for the Northwest.

When: 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 25.

Where: WSU Mount Vernon research center, 16650 State Route 536 (Memorial Highway).

Admission: Free.

Directions: From Bellingham, take Interstate 5 south to the Highway 20 exit, then go west about three miles toward Anacortes. Turn left onto Avon-Allen Road and continue to the intersection with SR 536. Turn right onto SR 536 and go about a third of a mile to the center.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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