by Peter Heffelfinger
During the past month I attended two field days at the WSU Agricultural Research Station in Mount Vernon. The first was hosted by the Bread Lab for a tour of their extensive wheat, rye, barley and buckwheat test plots. The second was a survey of current field studies, including: genetic research on diseases affecting potato and spinach; a demonstration of grafting vegetable seedlings for increased disease resistance; and methods of maintaining soil tilth and water retention in local clay soils. At both events, graduate, post-doc, and undergrad students, as well as faculty and technicians at the station, presented their projects. It is important that an agricultural university is doing much needed scientific research in the Skagit Valley helping local farmers adapt to climate change, developing techniques to understand and combat diseases, establishing new crops to help farmers diversify, and studying ways to maintain soil health. It was an impressive display of science at work, dealing with the challenges of our modern environment.
At the Bread Lab tour, led by the director, we walked by the thousands of varieties of wheat being grown out in each stand. Many were old strains developed in Northern Europe centuries ago to thrive in cool, coastal environments similar to the Pacific Maritime Northwest. This was simple evolutionary breeding as done by farmers over the past 10,000 years: pick out the best grain for taste and yield, and feed the rest to the animals. It was interesting to see Dutch, French and English wheat strains going back to the 17th century, all being tested here to see which could do best, along with new varieties being developed.
The goal of the Bread Lab is 100 percent whole wheat breads from local grain grown organically, a far cry from the commercial generic white flour with added artificial vitamins from the classic wheat regions of Eastern Washington and the plains of Kansas. Wheat is essentially a cool season crop, with the world record for bushels per acre set a century ago on Ebey’s Prairie on Whidbey Island. A standard yield on the marginal soil in the harsh climate of Kansas is 40 bushels per acre, whereas yields here can go as high as 150 – 200-plus bushels. Wheat reflecting the unique Skagit soils can become a high-value food crop for farmers instead of merely a winter cover used simply for rotation and often not even sent to the wholesale market. Already the first wheat crops reflecting the local “terroir” are being milled and sent to artisan bakeries, such as the Breadfarm in Edison. It’s just like buying fresh baguettes at a boulangerie in France.
We also saw stands of the rye and barley that have already stimulated a new malting facility for the booming local craft beer industry. What caught my attention most, however, were the buckwheat trials, since I am a great fan of kasha. Most U.S. buckwheat (actually a relative of rhubarb and sorrel and not a grass-derived wheat) is shipped to Japan for milling, where they keep the best for their soba noodles, and ship the rest back here. The intent is to develop a buckwheat industry here with a local mill for grinding the seeds, to make up for the loss years ago of the fresh pea processing plant in Burlington. Back in the 1970s, the valley was full of peas, with huge combines crawling along night and day, harvesting the vines, making the air pungent with the aroma of fermenting pea hay bales. Potatoes have come in since then to replace the peas, but there is always the need for a new niche crop. Buckwheat would be a nice addition, for kasha and of course, for classic French Crepes Bretonne. Plus, it is a traditional crop for the already threatened honey bees, and can be sown multiple times in a season.
What also stood out both days was the diversity of the presenters. Three undergraduate students, hailing from Skagit and San Juan counties and currently enrolled at WSU, presented their summer projects. There were also a number of graduate students from abroad. An Estonian woman talked of the great varieties of rye breads in Estonia compared to the American market. A young Italian chef, who went on to get a degree in agricultural studies, is doing research on scaling up heritage varieties of wheat in his native region. And an Indian researcher from Assam is developing techniques for grafting eggplant, tomato, and watermelon seedlings to prevent common diseases and increase production. She was intrigued to learn that I had grown the super-hot “Ghost” Jolokia hot chili pepper, since it is a variety named after her home province in India. Boasting one-plus million Scoville units of heat, it is not a pepper for the uninitiated. And finally, a new staff member talked of how to use alfalfa and fallow cycles to increase soil water absorption in face of dwindling water availability during our increasingly dry summers. He was originally from the West Coast, but ventured eastward to study at Cornell, the agricultural university in upstate New York. Ag studies can often take one far afield.
My favorite early spring crop is Oriental Snow peas, with snap peas being a close second, each grown as tall pole varieties. Both are eaten out of hand right in the garden when young and crisp or quickly stir fried in a wok. I haven’t grown shelling peas for years, being impatient with the hand work of shelling that is also hard on my increasingly arthritic thumbs. My first stand of both snow and snap peas this year was productive; however, the second bed of all snow peas was strange, even as it grew into a thick 10-foot tall hedge. The young pods looked at first like dwarf snow peas, but then the pods hardened into what might become a snap pea. But the pods were inedible at any stage, and the peas inside were either too small or tasted mealy when full size. Bought as seedlings from a trusted nursery I have used for years (Joe’s Garden). I can only speculate that either there was a seed company mess-up or a mislabeled flat of starts. Well, at least it is a healthy legume crop that will benefit the soil for the midsummer plantings.
Eggplants at Last
For several years I have been unable to grow eggplants, due to the buildup of verticilium wilt disease in my garden soil from crops of tomato and potato in all the beds. Finally, I bought 21 large planters and saucers, filled them with a mix of store-bought compost, soil and organic fertilizer, and placed them in the hoop house on a long sheet of compostable mulch paper. The aim was to keep out any exposure to my native soil, using only water directly from the well, and washing off tools. It makes you appreciate all the sterilization lab work that must go on at an agricultural field station when setting up experiments.
Finally, after a month of anticipation, and a dose of liquid fish fertilizer, I had lots of purple blossoms, which this year did not wilt and die off before setting fruit. The only crisis was the early infestation of the eggplant-loving flea beetles, which I rubbed off each day, although you have to move stealthily and then quickly before they jump into thin air. With the first Oriental and regular bulb eggplants, I made a stove-top ratatouille using the last of my 2018 shallots, green and yellow sweet peppers from the hoop house, some florets from a sprouted cauliflower, along with a few kalamata olives, and a mix of Middle Eastern spices, including green za’atar, cumin, and paprika. Plus dashes of white wine, cooking sake, and mirin, along with a few drops of Thai fish sauce, to make a soft stew resembling baba ghanouj. Served with bits of Bulgarian feta, some pickled red peppers for a little heat, and a few capers, with the juices mopped up with thick fougasse (French Provencal foccacia) from the Tallgrass Bakery in Seattle. Eggplants are always worth waiting for. And to avoid having to buy all that new soil, maybe next year I can try that new grafting technique I saw at the research station.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.