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With flavorful new wheat, Bread Lab’s Lyon lands ‘Washingtonian of the Day’ award

Steve Lyon, senior scientific assistant at the Bread Lab, shares Skagit 1109 bread with Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee during a May visit.

For helping farmers and bakers get their hands on western Washington’s first original wheat variety, The WSU Bread Lab’s Steve Lyon was named “Washingtonian of the Day.”

A senior scientific assistant at the Skagit Valley-based research center, Lyon won the informal honor from Jay Inslee during the Washington governor’s May 15 Bread Lab tour.

Lyon shared samples of bread baked from a new hard red winter wheat variety, dubbed Skagit 1109, while also sharing details with Inslee on what makes 1109 special.

“At the Bread Lab, we take wheat all the way from seed to the final product—the loaf of bread,” said Lyon. “We send our new varieties to farmers and bakers and let them decide which ones they like best. It’s all about that end use.”

Wheat has historically been an under-appreciated crop in the rainy, windy Skagit Valley. Thanks to breeders like Lyon, that’s already changing.

“Our farmers need wheat for their rotations—it adds erosion-fighting, nutrient-rich matter to the soil and breaks up disease cycles,” said Lyon. “But they were growing the wrong variety, and losing money when they didn’t have to.”

To help, Lyon crossed an old French wheat variety with a history of good performance in the Skagit Valley, with wheat strains from WSU’s east-side test plots that showed promise but didn’t grow well in arid eastern Washington.

The result, Skagit 1109, “blew me away,” Lyon said.

This new variety offers high grain yields, stands up to the Skagit’s wet, cold winters, and resists costly diseases.

Skagit 1109 can grow short or tall, develop early or late, and sometimes sports a “beard,” or bristle, at the tip of the stalk.

While all that variability runs against traditional wisdom that calls for maximum consistency in wheat, Lyon said that in the case of 1109, it’s a strength.

“Its variability protects it against climate change and everything else that comes at it, such as wet springs and late summers,” Lyon said. “As long as you keep planting it, the environment is going to drive it to the best type. That’s how farmers have done it for hundreds of years.”

Gov. Inslee pins a lapel pin on Lyon, recognizing him as Washingtonian of the Day.

Ensuring wheat works for the farmer is the Bread Lab’s number one priority.

“After that, it’s all about flavor and nutrition,” Lyon said. “We sent 1109 to dozens of different professional bakers, and they absolutely loved it.”

The bread that the governor tasted was baked into whole-wheat loaves by Scott Mangold of Breadfarm artisanal bakery in Edison, Wash.

“The flavors were unbelievable,” said Lyon.

The Bread Lab’s history with Gov. Inslee goes back several years. In 2015, Bread Lab staff helped plant wheat and barley varieties, including 1109, at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. The lab’s resident baker also shared techniques in the mansion kitchen with First Lady Trudi Inslee and representatives from the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

For Lyon, the Washingtonian of the Day recognition extends to the entire Bread Lab.

“It’s a team effort,” Lyon said. “This is about all of us.”

Learn more about The Bread Lab here.