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June 25: Grains field day stars heirloom wheat variety

By Cathy McKenzie, WSU Mount Vernon

grains-170MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – New varieties of wheat adapted for the mild marine climate of the Pacific Northwest will be featured at Small Grains Field Day 3-6 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, at Washington State University Mount Vernon.

Included will be lines from European companies, a Mexico nonprofit sustainability organization and – the highlight – a hard white spring wheat, named “Edison,” selected from the plantings of longtime Bellingham, Wash., breeder Merrill Lewis.

Bellingham wheat breeder Merrill Lewis, left, and senior scientific assistant Steve Lyon in the WSU Mount Vernon small grains demonstration garden. (Photo by Kim Binczewski)

“Over the years, my ‘hobby’ has turned into a full-time job,” 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.

Sharing seed – and history

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.

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 have saved us a lot of time and given us more to select on here,” Lyon said.

“Share and share alike – that’s the principle at the level of breeders,” Lewis said. “The idea here is to keep the germplasm alive and make it available.”

Barley, oats and more

Small Grains Field Day is free to the public. It will be held at the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, 16650 State Route 536, Mount Vernon, Wash.

Presentation topics will include barley malting, the latest rust disease-resistance research, perennial and colored wheat forage trials, new oat projects and restoring pre-World War II flavor lost from heritage wheats.

More information is available from program assistant Kim Binczewski, 360-848-6153.


Stephen Jones, WSU Mount Vernon director and plant breeding professor, 360-416-5210,

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