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WSU releases new barley variety honoring longtime plant breeder Steve Lyon

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – After more than 22 years of breeding wheat for Washington State University, Steve Lyon never expected to make a name for himself in the barley field. But this spring’s release of ‘Lyon,’ a new variety of barley, is one way his colleagues in Pullman have chosen to recognize his long-term contributions to small grains research.

05WA-316.K, now known as Lyon barley, is a two-row, spring barley developed for its higher yield potential than other varieties grown in eastern Washington. Its plump, covered kernels and resistance to fungal disease make it ideal for use as a livestock feed. Photo by Kim Binczewski. Click image to download hi-res version.
05WA-316.K, now known as Lyon barley, is a two-row, spring barley developed for its higher yield potential than other varieties grown in eastern Washington. Its plump, covered kernels and resistance to fungal disease make it ideal for use as a livestock feed. Photo by Kim Binczewski. Click image to download hi-res version.

“As a graduate student in Stephen Jones’ winter wheat program, I worked with Steve Lyon on a daily basis,” said WSU barley breeder Kevin Murphy who developed, and hence claimed naming rights to, the new variety. “There is no way I would have survived the harsh rigors of grad school without Steve’s help. He was always very positive, always sure things would work out fine; and he was almost always right. This is the best way I can think of to honor and thank him.”

Lyon found out about his barley namesake from Murphy earlier this spring, when Murphy was leading a graduate student agriculture tour of classes at the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center. Lyon has been stationed there for the past three years.

“My first reaction was shock and disbelief,” Lyon said. “I am extremely honored, yet it is very humbling because I feel there are others much more deserving of such a rare distinction.”

Senior scientific assistant Steve Lyon, shown with wheat plants maturing in a WSU Mount Vernon greenhouse, has been involved in WSU small grains research for more than 22 years.
Senior scientific assistant Steve Lyon, shown with wheat plants maturing
in a WSU Mount Vernon greenhouse, has been involved in WSU small
grains research for more than 22 years. Photo by Kim Binczewski. Click image to download hi-res version.

‘Lyon’ barley, formerly known as 05WA-316.K, is distinct in its higher yield potential than other varieties grown in eastern Washington, in its plump covered kernels and in its resistance to stem rust, a disease caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis.

The fungus attacks the above-ground parts of the plant and, a few weeks before harvest, can reduce an apparently healthy crop to a black tangle of broken stems and shriveled grains.

Although 2013 is the official year of release for the new barley variety, foundation seed will be available in spring 2014.>

“Lyon is a (livestock) feed barley that is very high yielding across many dryland environments in Washington state,” explained Murphy. “It does especially well in areas prone to stem rust and in areas that receive 16-24 inches of rainfall. Lyon is particularly well adapted to the Palouse regions of Washington.”

The same could be said of Lyon, a former wheat farmer who raised his family in Colfax, just north of Pullman, before heading west to the Skagit Valley.

“I’ve worked with Steve since 1995,” noted Stephen Jones, director of the Mount Vernon extension center and head of its plant breeding department. “He came into my program after time he spent with Ed Donaldson, a former WSU wheat breeder. Steve learned from one of the best; and when you add his farming experience, it makes it possible for him to run a field program immediately.

“He was instrumental in the development of some of the most successful wheat in the state, such as Bruehl, the most widely grown club wheat in the United States,” Jones said.

Lyon barley is the epitome of the variety-naming tradition, Jones said: “It is a great honor to have a variety named after you. Steve’s dedication to the grain growers in this state for nearly three decades is well worth this recognition.”

–Cathy McKenzie