Could fields of wheat be Alaska's next big grain crop?
With Alaska's growing season lengthening as a result of higher temperatures, researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have been studying whether it's possible to develop a more resilient type of wheat that matures quickly and is suitable for Alaska climates.
Last month, UAF professor Mingchu Zhang began harvesting spring wheat from a 1-acre plot at the university's Fairbanks experiment farm. This season, he tested 90 spring wheat varieties already developed at Washington State University and has been working to cross-breed some on his own to see which ones will thrive in Alaska.
Spring wheat is a fast-growing wheat crop ideal for northern climates that is planted in the spring and harvested in the summer. It's different from winter wheat, which is planted during the winter and harvested in the summer.
Barley has been the primary grain crop in Alaska because it requires a shorter growing season. But barley, with its low gluten content, doesn't have the same baking properties as wheat.
Growing wheat in Alaska isn't exactly new. Bob Van Veldhuizen, UAF research assistant in agronomy and soils since the 1970s, said wheat research has always been a part of the research station's work since it was founded over 100 years ago. In the 1920s, Fairbanks even had its own mill, he said, but it closed shortly after the railroad came to Fairbanks and made it easier to buy flour milled in the Lower 48.
Spring wheat matures quickly in a short growing season, but varieties grown in Alaska have been prone to "shattering," where the wheat grains fall off the plant before they can be harvested.
But with climate change extending the length of the growing season, Zhang said there are possibilities for growing different varieties of wheat that are less prone to shattering.
Zhang started working on wheat in 2010, but said interest in the crop has increased in recent years. Zhang sees wheat as a crop that could help address food security in Alaska.
"This has good potential for the market here," he said.
Still, it could be a while before a suitable spring wheat variety is ready for widespread distribution. Van Veldhuizen said it took 17 years to develop a barley crop suitable for Alaska.
But some have already started to try. Ben VanderWheele has grown wheat at VanderWheele Farms in Palmer for the last six years, experimenting with his own varieties on 20 acres of land.
He said the warming season has helped the harvest, but there have still been challenges. Shattering still occurs on some of the crop, but in smaller quantities. This spring he discovered sandhill cranes like the crop, and go down row by row eating up the seedlings.
"They seem to like the wheat more than anything," he said. "I never knew that before."
Still, he's been able to produce about 1 ton of wheat per acre, selling it to a few bakeries and at farmers markets for a $1 a pound.
VanderWheele said he decided to start growing wheat when people told him he couldn't.
"I'm stubborn," he said. "I had to prove it can be done."