New high-yield WSU spring wheat named for Black pioneer and family

William Owen Bush with WSU spring wheat
An historic photo of farmer and legislator William Owen Bush, inset amid a field of WSU’s new Bush spring wheat at Lynden, Wash.

Washington State University’s newest spring wheat variety, an outstanding performer for growers, millers, and bakers, is named for Black pioneer George Bush and his son, legislator and farmer William Owen Bush.

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 be widely available in 2025, with WSU spring wheat breeder Mike Pumphrey predicting it as the next leading Washington spring variety.

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

In field trials, Bush has outperformed Pumphrey’s 2016 release Ryan, Washington’s acreage-leading soft white spring wheat, 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 circa 1790, 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.

Composite of bronze bust, wheat and map
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)

His oldest son, William Owen Bush, was a farmer and Washington legislator. He aided the birth of the future Washington State University, authoring an early bill and joining the committee that created the new college.

“The name is a way to respect the people that created our legacy,” said Pumphrey, who believes WSU was a good investment by the younger Bush. “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

Mike Pumphrey talks in a field of green wheat.
WSU spring wheat breeder Mike Pumphrey at Lind Dryland Station.

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.

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.

Bush wheat at Ephrata
A field of WSU’s new Bush wheat variety growing in spring 2024 at Ephrata, Wash.

“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.”