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How Young Scientists Are Determining the Future of Organic Farming—And Craft Beer

One of the country's first organic plant breeding fellowships is funding a Washington State University graduate student studying barley for beer.

Washington State University graduate student Brook Brouwer

Stephen Jones breeds the type of wheat that makes bakers go nuts. It’s local, organic, and flavorful, and it can help restore soil health on small- to mid-sized farms. A few times a year, the Washington State University research center Jones heads holds a field day, inviting growers and farmers to check out what breeders are doing with the hundreds of thousands different crop varieties in their fields.

It was at one of those field days that Jones first met Brook Brouwer. “I noticed this tall kid kind of hanging around at different field days,” he says. “Then I gave a talk at a food justice meeting in Eugene, Oregon, and there was Brook. That’s the exact kind of student you want. If you can pick up your grad students at food justice meetings, that’s pretty good.”

Brouwer had begun exploring Jones' research center after hearing about its alternative approaches to plant breeding. He'd grown up on a sheep farm, and after studying biology in college had come home to Lopez Island, in the northwest corner of Washington State. He was working on a farm and had grown interested in “developing agricultural systems that break the normal cycles,” he says.

Not too long ago, Jones was troubled about training students in his line of work. In the past few decades, crops and money from biotechnology firms have come to dominate plant breeding and the universities that specialize in it. Jones questioned whether he should train more Ph.D. students to breed crops for sustainable, organic farms because he didn’t know whether they’d be able to find work.

Now, he says, that fear has subsided. The organic movement has been slower to infiltrate the world of plant breeding, but it's begun to gain a foothold. "Universities are hiring people that they wouldn't have dreamed of 15 years ago," for jobs with "sustainability" and "organic" in the title, Jones says. He was able to bring Brouwer on as a graduate student in part because of funding from the country’s first fellowship for organic plant breeding.

That fellowship comes from Seed Matters, an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation. It’s an investment, the foundation says, in “a robust, healthy food system,” meant to help cultivate long-term change at universities and other institutions that provide farmers with seed. (In Brouwer’s case, the Seed Matters money is matched by a grant from the Port of Skagit, a county government organization promoting economic development.) Without plant breeders like Jones and Brouwer, organic farmers won’t have plants to grow.

Brouwer got to work in January, the first of the three initial fellows to start his assignment. He’s working with Jones on barley crops, which, like wheat, can grow in the Pacific Northwest in rotation with more resource-intensive crops, adding organic material back to the soil. Jones wanted to offer farmers an alternative to winter wheat, and when they saw the barley one field day, "they just went ape over these things," Jones says.

“It's kind of a fringe crop,” Brouwer says, much less popular among breeders than corn and wheat. But barley has its own attractions, he says. "It's adaptable. It grows all over the world. It can grow in harsh condition. It has a lot of uses. It's grown as a food. It's a very important animal feed. And then there's this whole malting process."

Like wheat, barley has caught the interest of local artisans who see potential to transform it into a value-added product. “Everybody gets really excited when they find out I'm working with beer,” Brouwer says. He recently traveled with a local malting company to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to study malting for a week at a technical center. He’s learning how to analyze the suitability of a particular variety of barley for malting. And he’s searching in all corners of the world for barley that could do well in western Washington. One day, he could breed the type of barley that makes craft brewers go nuts.

Photo courtesy of Scott Vlaun for Seed Matters

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