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Local grad joins plant breeding team

Apr 1st, 2012 | Category: Community

Clif Bar Foundation fellowship: Lopez Island native Brook Brouwer joins WSU Center in Mount Vernon

by Jessamyn Tuttle

MOUNT VERNON – Stephen Jones, Director of the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, remembers first seeing Brook Brouwer at various extension events. “I would notice this tall kid hanging around. Then I gave a talk down at Eugene at a food security conference last year and noticed him there too. I figured that was a real good sign so we started talking and he said he wanted to go to grad school.” When the opportunity arose to add a graduate student to the plant breeding research team through a new fellowship program, it wasn’t a tough decision. “Anyone who would travel down to Eugene to attend a food justice conference must be pretty squared away,” Jones said.

Brook Brouwer at the WSU extension’s barley and wheat trial field. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Brouwer hadn’t originally planned to go back into academia. A native of Lopez Island, he grew up around farms and gardens and had a strong interest in the food movement and agricultural reform. He studied at Colorado College, where he majored in biology with a focus on botany and ecology, and helped start a community garden on campus. After graduation he felt he wanted some time off from school, so he did some traveling and tried a few different things.

Back home on Lopez, he worked at Jones Family Farm, helping raise cattle, pigs, goats, and even shellfish. It was a great experience for Brouwer, with “lots of hands-on work.” He loved working with animals and appreciated the perspective on agriculture. “They’re incredibly motivated people,” Brouwer said.

He began attending field days and seminars at the WSU research center, and remembers hearing Jones give a talk on Lopez Island. Jones’ work with perennial grains sparked his interest. “It was clear to me he was someone looking at innovative ways of doing things,” Brouwer said. He began looking into the possibility of graduate work under Jones.

The money for the graduate program was made available through the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s initiative Seed Matters, which is dedicated to promoting the improvement and protection of organic seed. The foundation issued $375,000 in grants to fund three Ph.D. fellowship students for five years in organic plant breeding at two public land grant universities. In January of 2012 Brouwer became the first student to start work under the fellowship. Two more students, one at WSU in Pullman and one at University of Wisconsin – Madison, will start in the fall. “I feel very honored to be chosen,” Brouwer said. The Port of Skagit is also contributing towards his research.

Brouwer has several different projects, all of them involving barley. One is working with hull-less barley. Most barley grown for human consumption has a very hard-to-remove hull, which is why it usually needs to be pearled, to polish off the husk. Hull-less barley loses its hull easily during harvesting, resulting in a whole grain that can be cooked or milled without extensive processing. It’s uncommon in the United States, and Brouwer is hoping to develop varieties that will do well in the Northwest.

Another project, working with Dr. Carol Miles of the Vegetable Horticulture department at WSU, is developing a flour mix that uses both grain and legume flours to produce a baking flour with an optimal protein/amino profile. The goal is nutrition, while also creating value-added products for grain and bean farmers.

Brouwer is full of enthusiasm for all of his research projects (“They’re all really exciting”), but the one he’s particularly into involves developing new kinds of malting barley for brewing beer. Malting barley is typically grown in huge quantities and is developed for growing in the Midwest or central Canada, which makes local sourcing difficult. Brouwer is experimenting with different varieties to determine what will grow well here, while Skagit Valley Malting & Brewing Co. is setting up a testing facility to try them out. Different barleys and malts can produce differences in beer just as using different hops can, and the hundreds of craft breweries in the Northwest would certainly love to have a choice of grains to use.

The point of all of these projects is to expand options for local farmers. By offering grains that perform better in our climate, farmers can grow cash crops in their rotation, whether it be malting barley or organic animal feed. “The price of organic grain is phenomenally high right now,” Brouwer said.

Most of Brouwer’s work is on the computer and threshing machine at the moment, with some time in the greenhouse. When he started, Jones encouraged him to get some seed going right away, and those plants are just beginning to put up seed heads. Developing a new variety can take over eight years. If he can’t finish all of his projects by the time his grant runs out, it will at least give him time to initiate his ideas and start the ball rolling for others’ work.

Brouwer isn’t sure where his future lies, but it seems likely that it will involve farming. “Part of me would like to continue doing this sort of research, part of me would like to explore more applied aspects,” he said. “When I talk to farmers they blow my mind.”

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