New spring wheat variety named for pioneering Black family

A bronze bust of William O. Bush and a composite of a map and wheat field in the background.
William Owen Bush, depicted in this bronze bust, was a highly successful wheat breeder and state legislator who helped establish the future Washington State University. (photo composite by WSU News & Media Relations)

Washington State University’s newest spring wheat variety honors a pioneering Black family whose contributions to farming, community building and civic service in the 1800s helped shape the Pacific Northwest.

Bush soft white spring wheat recognizes the contributions of settler George Bush and his family of skilled farmers who aided indigenous populations battling disease, saved fellow settlers during the famine of 1852 and helped develop what’s now the City of Tumwater. One of his sons, William Owen Bush, was a highly successful wheat breeder and state legislator who helped establish the future Washington State University.

“Bush is a wheat that’s steeped in decades of tradition,” said WSU spring wheat breeder Mike Pumphrey. “It’s the product of tried-and-true germplasm, the best of the best from our timeline.”

Newly released in 2024, Bush soft white spring wheat has been the top-yielding variety in WSU research trials across the state for the past two years. It will become widely available in 2025, with Pumphrey predicting it as the next leading Washington spring variety.

In field trials, Bush has outperformed Pumphrey’s 2016 release, the current acreage-leading soft white spring wheat know as Ryan, by at least 7% in grain yield.

“Performance across the years has been spectacular,” he said. “It’s at the peak of yield and quality of any spring wheat varieties available.”

Honoring a pioneering family

Seeking history on Washington’s first wheat farmers, Pumphrey chose the name to honor a family that included two remarkable men.

Born in the late 1700s, George Bush was a trapper, explorer, soldier, cattle producer, and among Washington’s first immigrant settlers. In 1844, he moved west from Missouri, leading a group of five families. Excluded from southern Oregon on account of his race, he pioneered the northern spur of the Oregon Trail, helping establish a settlement called New Market that was soon renamed Tumwater, Wash.

A successful farmer and innkeeper, the elder Bush helped Native Americans during disease epidemics and was remembered for his generosity to fellow settlers. His accomplishments helped make present-day Washington part of the United States.

At the time, Black people were denied by law from claiming land in the new territories. Washington’s territorial legislature successfully asked Congress to grant the Bush family the rights to their farm on Bush Prairie. When Bush died in 1863, he held land but not the right to vote.

A black and white photo of William Bush's home in Tumwater, Washington.
The home of William Owen Bush, son of pioneer George Bush, stood on the original Bush land claim at Tumwater, Wash. (photo provided by Washington State Archives)

The farm passed to his oldest son, William, who continued to build on the family successes with grain and produce that received both regional and national accolades. Elected to the Legislature when Washington became a state, the younger Bush aided the birth of the future Washington State University, authoring an early bill and joining the committee that created the new agricultural college and school of science.

“The name is a way to respect the people that created our legacy,” said Pumphrey. “We’ve been intimately involved in agriculture and rural livelihoods in this state for 130 years. It all goes back to some wise and generous people many decades ago.”

Through the new wheat’s name, Pumphrey hopes more people learn the story of the Bush family.

“How many people know that a Black man was one of the first wheat farmers in Washington?” he asked. “Or that his son, who helped create WSU, was probably our first prominent wheat ambassador: a legislator who traveled to world’s fairs and expos with samples of grain and showed the Northwest was a powerhouse for wheat production?”

Outstanding qualities for farmers, millers

Bush wheat has three parents with a deep pedigree. It’s a cross between WSU’s currently popular Tekoa variety and two experimental varieties with Louise and Alpowa wheats in their ancestry.

First crossed in 2015, Bush went through an eight-year process of development, testing, trials at WSU research farms and farm fields around the state, and multiplication of a large amount of seed from a small number of plants.

WSU’s spring wheat program makes hundreds of crosses annually. Only the very best get a named release, which happens every few years .

“By the fourth year of testing, the ones that are going to be the heroes usually stand out,” Pumphrey said.

A green field of Bush wheat growing near Ephrata, Washington.
A field of WSU’s new Bush wheat variety growing at Ephrata, Wash.

Realizing he had a winner, Pumphrey began seed multiplication for Bush, then known as experimental variety WA8351, during the testing period, raising about 60,000 pounds by spring 2024.

“When a new grain variety could make the industry an extra 5 or 10% return, every season matters,” he said. “We pushed the envelope to make it available as soon as possible.”

Bush benefits from Pumphrey’s long-term efforts to develop a pool of lines with good agronomic qualities, including disease, insect, and environmental resilience.

“It’s taken years of strong industry, university and federal support, and long days for our program staff and colleagues, but it’s worth it. It’s important to maintain a base of genetic diversity that gives us options for the future.”

Bush’s bright white, consistently high-quality flour makes for outstanding cakes and cookies, said Alecia Kiszonas, director of cultivar development at the USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Lab at Pullman. The variety also excels in its milling qualities: millers can extract better and more consistent flour per kernel, ultimately creating consistent, top-quality foods.

“The hallmark of a great variety is when it makes the farmer, the miller, the baking company, and consumer happy,” Kiszonas said. “Everybody wins.”

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