The Western Wheat Quality Lab becomes a septuagenarian

By Craig Morris and David Bolingbroke

Interest in the baking quality of wheat is as old as agriculture itself, but the ability to quantify and research methods to improve it are of a more recent vintage.

In the U.S., the revolution in technology, transportation and industrialization in the latter half of the 1800s brought about a keen interest to better understand wheat quality and to improve it through breeding and selection. The discovery of Mendel’s laws of genetics–“re‑discovered” by Washington State College (WSC) professor and wheat breeder William Jasper Spillman–more-or-less coincided with the invention and development of the steel roller mill, know-how that turned the centuries-old process of stone milling into a highly efficient, industrialized process. The 1884 Annual Report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) included a detailed analysis of this relatively new roller milling ‘gradual reduction’ process.

The earliest study of wheat quality conducted at WSC was completed by Professor R.W. Thatcher. As he stated in the 1907 publication, only a minor amount of wheat produced in Washington was consumed by its citizens. As a result, the majority was exported and had to “…compete with grain from other wheat-producing countries. In order to command a satisfactory market it must be at least equal in quality to the other wheats which are offered for sale.” Thatcher’s study included the varieties ‘Fife’, ‘Red Russian’, ‘Genesee Giant’, ‘Gold Coin’, and ‘Turkey Red’ among others. Analyses included many of the measures we still use today: test weight, protein content, milling, gluten content, and bread baking.

Around the same time (beginning in 1908), the USDA in cooperation with the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station performed milling and baking studies on wheat samples collected across America. In 1917, this activity was moved to Washington, D.C., due probably to the need to support the Unites States Grain Standards Act of 1916.

In the late 1930s, this function of the USDA was decentralized and two labs, the Federal Soft Wheat Quality Lab and the Hard Winter Wheat Quality Lab, were established in Wooster, OH and Manhattan, KS, respectively. Eventually sentiment grew that Pacific Northwest farmers needed a wheat quality lab of their own, focused on the particular types of wheat and environments found here.

In 1943, the Pacific Northwest Crop Improvement Association (PNCIA) was established by the region’s farmers. Although farmers began to reap the benefits of a collaborative relationship with the USDA and agronomists at the region’s land grant universities, they still lacked the research expertise and effective quality testing necessary to increase production yields in their fields.

Orville Vogel, a USDA employee based at Washington State College, had already been in Pullman for several years—mostly focused on helping to breed disease resistant wheat—when the federal government allocated funding for a wheat quality lab as part of the Flannagan-Hope Act, or the Research and Marketing Act of 1946. The following year the Washington State Legislature also provided funds for Washington State College to use on joint projects with the USDA. Although it’s not clear, it’s possible a portion of these funds also supported the newly established Western Wheat Quality Lab (WWQL).

Many years later when Vogel was interviewed, he remarked that the lab’s opening was a joint effort between the USDA, the college, grower organizations, PNCIA, and the Oregon Wheat Growers League (OWGL). The WWQL was the first of its kind in the American West and promised to serve as an important resource for both wheat breeders like Vogel and farmers across the region.

Shortly after allocating funds for the quality lab, the USDA brought in Dr. Mark Barmore, known as a serious minded Midwesterner to head it. Barmore assembled staff and equipment and by the spring of 1948 the lab was ready to begin milling and analyzing wheat samples to determine their quality. One initial complication was acquiring a miller with the right expertise.

Ed Seeborg was the man Vogel—and probably local growers wanted– but the Tacoma native didn’t have a college degree and the USDA wouldn’t hire him. Vogel recommended Seeborg because he felt his experiences as a miller outweighed his lack of educational training, remarking that “It is true that he has only two years of college but to me his fifteen or more years of experience in our own area is worth a darn sight more than two years of college.” To solve the problem, the OWGL pitched in to pay his salary for the first couple years until he had taken enough courses to meet the USDA’s requirements.

Choosing a local miller exemplifies the significant role local and regional efforts played into the WWQL’s creation.  The WWQL not only needed to service a specific region and the particular type of wheat grown (soft white) here. It also needed workers who had experience with local wheats and connections to the wheat farmers supporting the endeavor.

The PNCIA felt that the WWQL was highly beneficial to regional farmers. In 1948, their field secretary, Robert O. Fletcher offered the organization’s “whole hearted support” for the lab. Two years later in a report he noted that the lab was “undoubtedly the key project to the improvement of wheats from a quality standpoint and is a tremendous aid to the agronomists in locating high quality strains early in the breeding program.” He continued his praise, saying that the lab was “truly a service to the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.” At the time the lab operated with a budget of just under $43,000.  That was not an insignificant sum, having the same buying power in 2018 as more than $450,000.

The process of testing and milling wheats sped up as a result of the WWQL’s establishment. Vogel mentioned the role of new equipment like a micro-mill and the creation of the standardized cookie bake still used today for testing quality. With the help of the lab, Vogel tested the quality of the semi-dwarf soft white wheat he developed, Gaines. Upon commercial release in the 1960s, the variety became famous for its record producing yields. Washington State University (WSU) agronomist Rodney Bertramson mentioned how Barmore advised he and Vogel to be cautious pertaining to Gaines’ release because of its poor milling qualities. Bertramson said he liked to call Barmore their “conscience.”

In a 1965 letter nominating the WWQL for a USDA Superior Service Award, Vogel doled out high praise for the work the lab had accomplished since opening seventeen years before. He wrote that “The high milling and baking qualities of new Pacific Northwest wheats resulted largely from the ingenious and skillful testing services and from the effective liaison between wheat breeders and processors which had been provided by the laboratory personnel.”

Despite the accolades, in 1966, the federal government nearly shut down the WWQL as part of a reduction of agricultural research funds. Alerted to the lab’s impending closure, the region’s Congressional delegation was asked by farmers and others to oppose the measure. A few months later the fund reduction plan failed to pass in the House.

The WWQL’s current director, Craig F. Morris, has overseen the lab’s work for the past 30 years. Surrounded by a sea of societal change, the mission of the lab remains essentially the same as when it was established. The same standard cookies are baked to test flour quality and the lab’s technicians remain busy researching how to improve quality. After having completed the 2017‑crop milling and baking analyses, the lab celebrated 70 seasons of service.

Craig Morris is Director of the Western Wheat Quality Lab and David Bolingbroke is a History PhD Candidate at Washington State University. Research assistance was provided by Ujwala Ganjyal. 

 Several of the sources used were obtained through the Washington State University Library’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.