One hundred and thirty varieties of wheat, twenty varieties of barley, and twenty-five varieties of oats formed a patchwork of various shades of amber. A crowd of us gathered amongst these trial plots of grain on June 17th at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC. We gathered to view the plots and to hear from Dr David Marshall, wheat breeder from the USDA-ARS; Sharon Funderburk, organic crop consultant; Molly Hamilton, Organic Grain Project, NCSU; and Jennifer Lapidus (me), NC Organic Bread Flour Project.
Dr Marshall began the talk by providing a bit of background, explaining the impetus for the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials, launched in 2002, when someone from Bay State Milling in Morresville, NC, asked him if hard wheat could be grown in the Carolinas. At the time, he was doubtful. NC traditionally grows soft wheat (hard wheat is typically used for bread, whereas soft wheat is mostly used for cakes, pastries, crackers, and some flat breads). But trials began with selections from any available hard wheat varieties they could get their hands on, and plots were planted from the panhandle of Florida all the way up to central Pennsylvania. The USDA-ARS partnered with a program in New Zealand so they could accelerate the program by getting two generations of wheat per year. Since 2002, about 1000 crosses have been made each year, breeding for disease resistance, yield, and quality (baking quality which addresses things like protein, and resistance to sprouting in the field-- which dramatically affects performance in the bakery). Dr Marshall's crosses are all old school natural breeding (as opposed to gmo, which modifies genes between different species). All the genes Dr Marshall works with are within the wheat family. And all his breeds can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent where wheat originated.
Thus far, three varieties have been released: TAM 303, NuEast, and Appalachian White. The varieties are widely adapted, the first two have done well grown from North Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania; the latter does not grow as well down south but grows best from NC north (these varieties were not planted north of PA in the trials, thus he did not address performance for the NE.)
Dr Marshall answered questions regarding harvest, storage, moisture, commercial availability of seed, and taste: Harvest is to occur somewhere between 13-14% moisture; storage was recommended at 13% and below, ideally 12 % moisture. And aeration in one's storage is ideal. The NuEast and Appalachian White were provided to the North Carolina Foundation Seed Service last year to be grown out for seed, though harvest had just occurred the previous week and he could not say how much seed would be available. Taste is a difficult quality for the breeder to access, as baking techniques differ, but the NC Organic Bread Flour Project intends to develop a survey for their participating bakeries to use when testing flour; this survey will need to address baking methods-- straight dough vs sponge, yeasted vs naturally-leavened, etc...
As a group we proceeded to tour through the trial plots of wheat, oats, and barley. Amongst the wheats Dr Marshall began with the oldest of the varieties planted: Mediterranean, and then moving up about fifty years, to a variety that is about 200-250 years old, a selection out of Mediterranean known as Federation. He then pointed out Coastal and Coker 57-6, which he explained, represent, among tall, standard height varieties (pre-dwarf or semi dwarf), state of the art varieties grown commercially on the east coast in the 1940s and 50s; these varieties were bred soft wheats (as opposed to the older varieties-- Mediterranean and Federation-- that predate the distinction between hard and soft). Next, Dual, similar to Coastal and Coker 57-6, and then Red Fife, which was a variety released out of Canada around 1900-1910, brought over by the Mennonites. Red Fife has hard wheat qualities (higher protein). He then pointed out the modern varieties, considerably shorter than the older varieties, the result of the work of Norman Borlaug and the mainspring of the Green Revolution. And then we arrived at his wheats-- TAM 303, NuEast, Appalachian White, and 5 or 6 lines of very similar hard red wheat that have all been very successful with very good lodging resistance (lodging is when the wheat falls over, making it difficult to harvest), high yield, and a very good disease package. He expects his next line to be released to come from this selection of wheats.
He spoke about mixing time-- one of the qualities they select for. He shoots for mix times around three and a half to four minutes-- from the time flour and water are mixed together to when this mixture becomes a dough. Shorter mix times can be a problem, as the dough can fall apart. He pointed out one variety of wheat with a seven minute mix time, which may be favorable to a baker.
He led us to a plot of grain that appeared less mature that its surrounding wheat-- spelt--and admitted they have done very little work on spelt and have no recommendations about growing or fertilization rate or seeding rate. Molly Hamilton chimed in that starting this fall, the Organic Grain Project will begin work on organic spelt production with NC State so they can have research-based recommendations for NC growers. The growing will be in the eastern part of the state and maybe in the piedmont as well. They will be looking at seeding rates, fertility, and harvest efficiency. She added that organic dairies in NC are interested in feed grade spelt with the hull on because of the nutritional factor.
Dr Marshall also led our group to the barley and oat plots where the conversation naturally led toward the possibility of malting barley for the many micro breweries in NC (13 in WNC; at least 30 in the state) [but, more on that later...]
After the tour of grains, we gathered under the shade of the EZ-up and Sharon asked the group if they had any specific concerns regarding growing grain. Molly Hamilton gave a brief overview of the Organic Grain Project and mentioned the North Carolina Organic Grain Production Guide which is available online for download. And I gave a bit of an update of the NC Organic Bread Flour Project (more on that later.)