Professors at Washington State University received two of only three $125,000 fellowships in the nation from the Clif Bar Family Foundation on Jan. 17 to further research in organic plant breeding.
Stephen Jones, a professor at the WSU research center in Mount Vernon, and Kevin Murphy, an assistant research professor in WSU’s crop and soil sciences, received the first ever five-year Seed Matters Fellowships. They will manage the fellowship and research, but two doctoral students will conduct the projects.
“The Clif Bar Family Foundation is stepping up and contributing to what most people don’t,” Jones said. “They are trying to find organic programs and fund them in a pretty large manner to demonstrate that there is worth and value to this type of research at a university.”
Jones said chemicals used in agriculture today appear in substances like fertilizers and pesticides to help cultivate a good crop. Organic breeding works to gain the same or better crop yield without synthetic chemicals, he said.
“We are developing new strains of barley in this case that don’t require pesticides to be applied to them,” Jones said. “People like the idea of no chemicals because they think it is safer to eat and safer for the environment.”
The research students will gain formal training in classical genetics and plant breeding, Jones said. While working with community business leaders, farmers and politicians, the student’s communication skills will also improve, he said.
Matthew Dillon, cultivator of Seed Matters at the Clif Bar Family Foundation, said the fellowships attract new students to plant breeding, expand the presence of organic research in public institutions and breed new seed varieties to assist the needs of the organic community. One of the missions of the foundation is to support public research and education for the common good, he said.
“The program supports the next generation of leadership in organic research, entrepreneurship and agricultural advocacy,” Dillon said. “As the organic community benefits from organic farming and food, it’s our responsibility to support research to continually improve these crops.”
Dillon said they chose Jones and Murphy to head two of the three fellowships because the professors showed a strong track record of innovation in organic and participatory research. The foundation sees a benefit in the partnerships Jones and Murphy have with farmers and local communities, he said.
The project serves both organic and non-organic farmers, Dillon said.
Brooke Brouwer, a doctoral student at WSU Mount Vernon and Seed Matters Fellowship recipient, said he started working with barley breeding for both human consumption and animal feed. One project he assists with involves brewers who showed interest in local, organic barley for their product, he said.
“I was definitely struck at this conference when I realized what an honor it was to be a first fellow in this program,” Brouwer said. “I’m really excited about working with growers in this area and figuring out what they want to do and what varieties work well in their systems.”
The grains Brouwer studies are typically grown as rotational crops in his region, the Skagit Valley in Western Washington. Through his research and collaboration, he wants to develop seed varieties that increase the performance of these grains and crop value for the farmers, he said.
“Recently at an organic conference, I spoke to farmers about trials,” Brouwer said. “As I develop more connections I hope that working on local farms can be a possibility.”
Brouwer started his research during the spring 2012 semester, and the other two doctoral students will start in fall of 2012. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was the third university to receive a fellowship.