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Exploring Small Grains Field Day June 25

Jun 4th, 2014 | Category: Growing

Edison Wheat: Focus on Bellingham plant breeder Merrill Lewis’ spring wheat

by Cathy McKenzie

New varieties of wheat adapted for the mild marine climate of the Pacific Northwest will be featured at this year’s Small Grains Field Day on June 25 at WSU Mount Vernon. And there will be plenty of samples on hand to highlight the range of color, flavor and aroma these regional wheats bring to the table.

At the top of the list is the Edison wheat, a hard white spring wheat selected from long-time Bellingham plant breeder Merrill Lewis’ Fossum Remnants 2012 seed plantings.

Bellingham wheat breeder Merrill Lewis (left) and Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon peruse the WSU Mount Vernon small grains demonstration garden adjacent to The Bread Lab. PHOTO BY KIM BINCZEWSKI

Bellingham wheat breeder Merrill Lewis (left) and Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon peruse the WSU Mount Vernon small grains demonstration garden adjacent to The Bread Lab. PHOTO BY KIM BINCZEWSKI

The Fossum Cereals wheat lines, and the Edison variety selected from them, are a testament to Lewis’ perseverance far afield from the lecture halls of Western Washington University, where he worked full time as an English professor from 1962 until his retirement in 1994. His education includes a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in history, and a Ph.D. in English/American Studies; yet he has no formal training in the plant-breeding sciences.

“Over the years, my ‘hobby’ has turned into a full-time job in itself,” Lewis said of his wheat breeding experience. “Maybe it’s the history buff in me, but I am fascinated by what I have learned from the work and writings of other breeders, farmers and researchers.”

That feeling appears to be mutual.

“This year we want to showcase Edison wheat, in honor of Dr. Lewis’ amazing contributions over the years to plant breeding research throughout this entire region,” said Steve Lyon, senior scientific assistant in the WSU Mount Vernon plant breeding program.

The name Edison in turn honors the Skagit County town at the end of Farm To Market Road and its local food lore, according to Lewis.

“The story given to me was that Edison had once been a shipping port for the Puget Sound,” Lewis said. “The problem was (through diking and draining to improve farmland), they changed where the Samish River went. Taking the river away from Edison cut off the boats that used to ply the Puget Sound and pick up foodstuffs from the Skagit Valley.

“I realized the name deserves some posterity,” he said. “Of course there’s another Edison who’s also known historically, and I thought we’ll just ignore him.”

This history of Edison – the town and the wheat – symbolizes its durability, the researchers agree.

“It takes 10-12 years to develop a wheat, and the wheat lines Dr. Lewis has developed and shared with us has saved us a lot of time and given us more to select on here,” Lyon said.

Sharing is an integral part of the breeding culture espoused by Lewis and WSU Mount Vernon Small Grains Field Day organizers. Whether it’s providing seed to farmers, amassing knowledge among researchers, or opening new niche markets for millers, bakers and maltsters, it’s all about the collaboration that helps promote sustainable, high-quality, high-yield, disease-resistant small grains production in the Northwest.

According to Lyon, there are several promising wheat varieties with the potential to grow well and be successfully utilized here on the west side of the Cascade Mountains.

At WSU Mount Vernon, plant breeding researchers grow and test the seed to determine suitable grains for this climate. In The Bread Lab, they take testing to the next level to determine the qualities of local small grains that make them desirable for milling, baking and malting purposes.

Bakers are attracted to Edison wheat because of its rich flavor and baking properties, Lyon said.

“There is a lot of research going on right now, including breeding barley, oats, buckwheat and dry beans,” he said.  “And it all ends up in The Bread Lab. It can work in the field, but someone has to eat it.

“We try to test for both successes and failures, so you can get rid of a variety before it fails on the farmer,” Lyon said. “From large-scale farmers to those who just want to grow enough grain in their back yard to bake a loaf of bread, there is something for everybody here.”


Small Grains Field Day is free and open to the public. It will be held Wednesday, June 25 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the WSU Research Center, 16650 State Route 536, Mount Vernon. Planned presentation topics include barley malting, the latest rust-disease-resistance research, perennial and colored wheat forage trials, new projects involving oats, and restoring pre-World War II flavor lost from heritage wheats. For more information, contact Program Assistant Kim Binczewski at (360) 848-6153.

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One Comment to “Exploring Small Grains Field Day June 25”

  1. Gerald Hulbert says:


    I have some, at most 14 acres that I have used for hay and corn over the last twenty years my wife and I have rented to local farmers for their crops. I have heard about the Edison wheat but too late for the June 25, 2014 date to visit the WSU facility in Mount Vernon on the Small Grains Field Day. I would like to see if someone would like to use my field as an experimental field to grow this type of wheat. I am east of Sumas just below Vedder Mountain just minutes south of the US/Canadian line. I am in a flood plain yet my residence is situated is higher that the Sumas watershed to prevent flooding at the house. Main crops are hay and corn. I have not been able to expand because I have no water rights, however. The water rights and availability is and has been an issue for Whatcom County. I would like to have enough water to satisfy my acreage some day, total of which is 20 acres of open space. We do get the strong northeasterly winds in the winter but the season in summer is hot enough to bale hay. Would like to have someone come to view the acreage and I can send photos of the acreage if someone would send me their email address. Thank you.

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