Optimizing Amendment and Seeding Rate for Heritage Spring Wheat Production in Western Washington

Final report for FW19-353

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2019: $19,432.00
Projected End Date: 04/01/2021
Grant Recipient: Barn Owl Bakery & Heritage Grains
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Nathan Hodges
Barn Owl Bakery & Heritage Grains
Expand All

Project Information


Optimizing Amendment and Seeding Rate for Heritage Spring Wheat Production in Western Washington. 

Western Washington millers, brewers, bakers and farmers seek to expand local production of high quality novel and heritage grains (Banse 2018). Producers seeking to grow specialty grains lack information to support production methods and mitigate risk. Little work has been done on the agronomics of grain production in western Washington and regional research focuses on conventional production systems.  Barn Owl Bakery and Heritage Grains seeks financial support and support from a technical advisor to expand their self-funded grain and baking trials to address key production questions and share lessons learned with regional producers.  

San Juan County,  a group of islands in the Puget Sound of western Washington has a rich history of agriculture. Today grains are the largest acreage of certified organic crop production in San Juan County and local craft bakeries throughout the islands are interested in sourcing local and regionally grown wheat. Barn Owl Bakery and Heritage Grains will plant Halland, a Swedish landrace standard height hard red spring wheat that has been grown on Lopez Island for 4 years. An assessment of seeding rates, compost top dressing post seeding, and organic fertilizer amendment on spring wheat agronomic performance, the biomass of wheat and weeds, soil quality and wheat end use quality will be conducted. Findings will be shared utilizing Barn Owl’s well established community connections, strong social media network, field days, farm tours, and regional grains conferences. This project combines the expertise of an established bakery with the science of grain production linking field methods to the qualities of the grain in the bread in an established and experienced project team already serving the region. This creative applied research and outreach project will help inform the continued expansion of local and regional grain production and inform utilization by craft bakeries.

Project Objectives:

In order to address the challenge of improving the quality and quantity of landrace, ancient, or heritage grains in low-input organic systems grown in western Washington we will conduct applied research and outreach relating to six primary objectives.


  1. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on spring wheat agronomic performance.
  2. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on weed biomass and cover.
  3. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on soil quality.
  4. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application,  and organic fertilizer amendment on spring wheat end use quality.
  5. Encourage novel organic grain production for craft millers, brewers and bakers by illuminating risks and benefits.
  6. Quantify producer adoption impacts using before-and-after questionnaires.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Brook Brouwer - Technical Advisor
  • Sage Dilts - Producer
  • Angie Freeman - Technical Advisor
  • Nathan Hodges - Producer
  • Walton Andrews (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Barn Owl Bakery and Heritage Grains will work with Dr. Brouwer to expand their heritage grain trials using replicable methods so actionable results can be shared. Trials will be conducted at Morningstar Farm on Lopez Island in San Juan County.  Barn Owl Bakery has conducted variety trials and seed expansions at the site for four years. Lopez has annual rainfall of ~30 inches, with less than 3 inches of precipitation during June, July and August. Spring wheat will be planted in late April or early May following a winter rye, crimson clover, and winter pea cover crop.  The variety used in this trial is Halland, a Swedish landrace standard height hard red spring wheat grown on Lopez for 4 years. Ground will be prepared by rototilling one week prior to planting. Wheat will be hand broadcast and incorporated using a rototiller set to one inch depth. Plots will be arranged using a split plot randomized complete block design with amendment as main plot and seeding rate as the sub plots. Each treatment will be replicated three times. Each sub plot will be 72 sq. ft.


Amendments: Control plots, no additional amendment; Composted green waste and cow bedding from Midnights Farm on Lopez Island, applied to plots at 10 tons/acre as a top dressing after seeding; Fertilizer, organic fertilizer (8-2-4 Nutri-rich) applied at seeding by hand to reach a target of 150 pounds of N per acre based on soil test N present and added fertilizer.


Seeding Rate: The wheat will be seeded at 60, 120 and 180 pounds per acre. The low rate is based on historical recommendations which may be appropriate for production of heritage wheat varieties in low rainfall, low input growing conditions typical in rain shadow areas of western Washington. The middle rate of 120 lbs per acre is the standard current practice and recommendation.  The high rate of 180 lbs per acre may be more effective at shading out weeds. Seeding rate will be based on weight. Thousand kernel weight and germination percentage will also be measured to calculate viable seeds planted per square foot.


Specific methods are described below.  


1. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on spring wheat agronomic performance.

Wheat establishment: Total number of wheat plants will be counted in one randomly placed quadrate (0.5m x 0.5m) to determine number of plants established in each plot.

Stripe Rust: Stripe rust is the primary pathogen of wheat in western Washington.  At heading stage the % leaf area covered by stripe rust will be estimated in each plot.

Lodging: % of lodging in each plot will be estimated in early August prior to harvest.

Plant Height: Average plant height will be measured in each plot in early August prior to harvest.

Yield: Plots will be hand harvested and threshed using a stationary thresher. Yield will be calculated as pounds clean grain per plot area.

2. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on wheat, clover, and weed biomass and cover.

Wheat, clover and weed % cover: Percentage cover of wheat and weeds will be estimated at four time points in each plot, June, July, August and September.  At each sampling time the cover of each plant group will be evaluated in a randomly placed quadrate (0.5 m x 0.5 m).

Wheat and weed biomass: Above ground biomass in each plot will be estimated by harvesting, drying and weighing plant material in one randomly placed quadrate (0.5m x 0.5m). Plant material will be hand cut at a soil level and separated into wheat and weed components. Wet weight of each component will be measured immediately. Dry weight will be estimated by allowing samples to dry under cover in paper bags until weight has stabilized. A single biomass harvest will be conducted in early August prior to grain harvest.

3. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on soil quality. The following measurements will be conducted at the whole plot level to measure impact of amendment on soil nutrients and water infiltration.

Soil Testing: Four sub samples will be collected from each whole plot using a soil core sampling to a depth of 12 inches, sub samples will be mixed in a 5 gallon bucket and sent to a lab to conduct a standard soil test. Sampling will be conducted in early fall each year after grain harvest.

Infiltration: Soil infiltration will be measured as described in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Quality Test Kit Guide (USDA-NRCS, 2001). Four infiltration tests will be performed in each whole plot in early fall and results will be combined for each plot.

4. Measure impact of seeding rate, compost application, and organic fertilizer amendment on spring wheat end use quality.

Grain Quality: Grain quality parameters including % moisture, % protein, kernel hardness, test weight and thousand kernel weight will be measured at the Western Wheat Quality Lab Pullman, WA.  This service will be accessed free of charge through SJC WSU Extension.

Baking Quality: Whole grain sourdough baking quality will be assessed by Barn Owl Bakery.  The wheat from each plot will be milled into whole grain flour on a tabletop mill and immediately mixed into dough using a standard baking formula.  All doughs will receive the same handling and fermentation, and be baked together in a woodfired oven. In a blind taste test, loaf volume, crumb texture and color, and flavor will be independently rated on a 1-5 scale by a team of 5 volunteers and the results averaged for each plot. 

Research results and discussion:

Barn Owl SARE Results Table 2019

Barn Owl SARE Work Schedule 2019

Preliminary results after our first research season shows significant different in yield and soil NO3 post harvest, relative to amendment. Yield was significantly higher with compost than either the control or the organic fertilizer. For NO3 compost had the lowest level, followed by control, then organic fertilizer with the highest level.  While not statistically significant, weed percent cover and weed biomass was highest in the fertilizer plots.
For seeding rate significant differences were found for seeding rate and yield, percent wheat cover, percent weed cover, and wheat and weed biomass. In all cases except yield, the 60lb seeding rate was significantly less than either the 120lb or 160lb seeding rate while no difference was seen between the 120lb and 160lb seeding rate. 
The 2020 field season research was successful, but there were no statistically significant results produced from the data collected in 2020. The plots were uniformly more weedy in 2020 and in some cases the plots were almost bare of wheat. Due to a broken rototiller final tillage was done with a disc and the stand establishment was less successful.  Despite there being no statistically significant differences, mean weed cover and biomass were both highest in plots with organic fertilizer
We also conducted quality analysis and test baking analysis on the grain from the 2019 harvest in early 2020. Quality analysis was performed by the WSU wheat quality lab in Pullman.  Using the One-Way analysis of variance (ANOVA), there were 7 values that show statistical differences (and meet all assumptions for ANOVA) which vary by amendment. These are, Single Kernel Weight, Wheat Protein, Mill Score, Flour Protein, Mixograph Absorption, Absorption , and Crumb Grain. 
The baking quality tests were performed at Barn Owl Bakery. Grain was milled from the combined samples of amendement and seeding rate replicates for a total of 9 loaves. There was not a huge difference in final loaf volume or crumb structure, although from a subjective perspective the loaves made with grain from the plots that had organic fertilizer applied had more gluten development and were easier to handle. 
Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

30 Farmers
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:


Findings of this applied research project will be communicated to producers through field days, fact sheets and regional agricultural conference presentations and to the general public through  Barn Owl’s well established community connections, social media and distribution network as well as San Juan County WSU Extension’s outreach and education expertise.


The 2019 Field Day was hosted on August 28th. We had 26 participants (farmers), 0 ag professionals attend.  On average evaluation respondents indicated that they increased their knowledge in areas of “Organic grain production”, “Organic soil amendments”, and “Cultural strategies for organic weed control” from poor (2/5) to good (4/5).  Respondents also indicated that they were likely (4/5) to implement changes in the areas of “approach to weed management” and “use of organic soil amendments”. Overall the workshop was rated as excellent (5/5). 


On January 18th 2020 Nathan Hodges was on a panel at the Cascadia Grains Conference speaking about the results of the SARE Grant. There were 50 people in attendance with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 for the panel. 


On February 8th 2019 Nathan Hodges and Dr. Brook Brouwer presented at the San Juan Islands Ag Summit on growing grain in the San Juans. We discussed the preliminary results of the SARE research. There were 23 people at the talk and they gave an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 for how informative the session was.


Our education and outreach efforts were severely curtailed in 2020 due to COVID, with farm tours, field days, and conferences canceled.


In February of 2021 Nathan had the opportunity to be interviewed by Fresh Growth – a podcast highlighting the work of SARE grant recipients in the west. https://westernsare.buzzsprout.com/711552/7702120-barn-owl-bakery-growing-heritage-grains


Education and outreach will continue as we talk with local farmers and highlight this work on our social media.


Educational Outreach Deliverables

Present preliminary results at local Field Days – August 2019 (completed), August 2020

Presentation at Cascadia Grains Regional Conference – January 2020 (completed), January 2021

Presentation at San Juan Islands Agricultural Summit – February 2020 (completed), February 2021

Fresh Growth Podcast : https://westernsare.buzzsprout.com/711552/7702120-barn-owl-bakery-growing-heritage-grains

SARE Final Report

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Variety diversity

  • Compost application post seeding

  • Cover cropping

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The preliminary results from the first year of our project suggested that heritage spring plant wheat responds more strongly to compost than organic fertilizer. The results also suggest that the economic outlay necessary for organic fertilizer or compost has to be weighed against the increase in agronomic performance of the wheat. The control plot where no amendment was applied was statistically no different than the plots where organic fertilizer was used. 

The results of seeding rate suggest that the 180lb seeding rate is optimal, however the stand count for that seeding rate was 58.9 plants since we broadcast planted. 

The results from our 2020 field research suggest that there is no significant difference in agronomic performance by amendment in spring planted heritage grains.  This is an important conclusion due to the high cost of both compost and fertilizer. Our results suggest that cover crops are sufficient to grow spring planted heritage grains in western Washington. 

Based on the baking quality results and the bakery test bake there is a small advantage in baking quality in the grain from plots that received organic fertilizer, however the benefit must be weighed against the increased cost in a production system. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.