The world’s wheat and barley enthusiasts, professionals and hobbyists alike, flocked to the 2017 Grain Gathering at Washington State University’s Bread Lab food campus last week.
Over 300 people from 23 states and seven countries spent three days at the Port of Skagit to hear, see and taste the progress researchers and scientists are making turning Skagit Valley grains into feedstock for artisanal producers. They also sampled freshly made breads, beers, bagels and more.
The significance of the 7th annual Grain Gathering, held this year in the Bread Lab’s new home, can hardly be estimated. Director Stephen Jones describes himself as a plant breeder. His words prove he also breeds ideas. In facilitating a gathering of people from all walks of society who have an interest in healthy grains, he has created a flow of information with broad reach and long-ranging impact.
Millers and bakers, plant breeders and nutritionists, farmers and seed distributors, people seeking to learn more about wheat flours and people who just want to bake better bread attended. As Dr. David Kilellea, a scientist in the Nutrition & Metabolism Center at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, cautioned in his Saturday keynote speech, the gathering had a “Pro-Wheat Agenda.”
Paticipants heard lectures, took cooking classes, discussed the nutritional value of whole grains, baked and ate whole grain breads, and sometimes burst into song. By Saturday, the last day of the gathering, it was clear the group had bonded.
Daily they had heard from Bread Lab researchers, were given a chance to walk through the test fields at WSU and educated in the ways of developing their own strand of wheat. The most used strain of whole wheat in the U.S. was developed by a retired Western Washington University English Professor in his backyard, they were told.
Thursday keynoter June Jo Lee highlighted population shifts: Gen Z, those born since
1998, are 26 percent of the U.S. population; 46 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds are non-white.
Her approach is philosophical as well. “Local is an enchanted place,” she said. If people choose to develop regional food systems, they will emphasize relationships between farmers and consumers. She urged her audience “to go for the hard,” by creating an alternative food system.
Congresswoman Suzan del Bene spoke to the group on Saturday, encouraging the continued support of science and expressing the hope that despite the obstacles before us in, as she calls it, “the other Washington,” we can build a better food system.
There may be an anti-grain trend in diets these days, but Dr. Jones’s grain researchers are doing what they can to dispel the myths surrounding its nutritional value and working with people around the globe to push the use of better grains everywhere.
When asked if the developer of the most popular whole wheat grain made any money off his development, WSU graduate student Brigid Meints responded, “None of us make any money. You could patent the wheat, but that would tie up the genes and we don’t want to do that.” They don’t, because they want the world to have better grain.
Jones announced on Saturday that there will be Bread Lab Fellowships in the coming year, so people can work beside his students in the Bread Lab. He shared plans that next year’s Grain Gathering includes a poetry workshop, a yodeling class and some sort of singing group (a couple of attendees spontaneously displayed their vocal skills upm haring this).
It’s the kind of mixture of science and art that invites creative collaboration. Jones closed as he had opened Thursday: “There is room for beauty in what we do.” Indeed.