WSU’s Bread Lab, where scientists tweak Chipotle tortillas, establishes $1.5 million research endowment

Washington State University has established a $1.5 million endowment to support organic grain breeding at the school’s Bread Lab in Mount Vernon, Washington.

The lab, part of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, develops new varieties of wheat and barley with an eye toward craft bakers and brewers in the Skagit Valley. Rather than commodity white flour, the lab focuses on hardy, flavorful, nutrition-dense rotation crops that mill well as whole grains.

“The whole mission of what we do is to make whole wheat products more accessible to people,” Stephen Jones, a plant geneticist and the lab’s director, said. “We work in the lab to make breads and cookies and things that people actually want to eat.”

The new endowment includes an $850,000 contribution from Clif Bar & Company, which is pushing to use more organic and sustainable ingredients in its line of grain-based energy bars, and $500,000 from the Vermont-based King Arthur Flour Company, which offers baking tutorials at the Bread Lab.

The endowment also includes $25,000 from Seattle-based Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and $25,000 from the Seattle chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic group of women from the food, beverage and hospitality industries. The rest came from nine individuals who made donations ranging from $100 to $75,000.

Jones said the money will pay for equipment and doctoral research positions, among other things.

The Bread Lab’s other sponsors include Whole Foods Market and Patagonia Provisions, a food-focused subsidiary of the outdoor-apparel manufacturer. In 2015, the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle recruited the lab to develop a simpler “artisanal” tortilla without all the preservatives typically used in mass production.

“We rely almost 100 percent on outside funders,” Jones said.

Jones holds the Clif Bar-King Arthur Flour endowed chair in WSU’s agriculture college. The funding is permanent, so the school will have an incentive to fill the position whenever he leaves or retires.

“The nice thing about an endowment like this is that it goes on in perpetuity,” he said. “It helps sustain the life of the program.”

Clif Bar, based in Emeryville, California, pledged in 2015 to contribute $10 million to five research endowments at public universities by 2020. Jones is the second beneficiary. The first was William Tracy, an agronomy professor who studies organic corn breeding at the University of Wisconsin.

“Organic research helps farmers and farming communities thrive,” Matthew Dillon, Clif Bar’s senior director of agricultural policy and programs, said in a news release. “The Bread Lab serves as a model for other regions of rural America to replicate.”

Karen Colberg, a chief executive of King Arthur Flour, added: “Innovation in wheat breeding and organic farming practices is critical to improving the long-term health of our soil and our planet. If we can help to evolve the agriculture landscape through improved organic farming, we help farmers and we help meet growing consumer demand for more organic food.”

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