Faces of Public Plant Breeding: Brook Brouwer

Brook Brouwer grew up on a small sheep farm on Lopez Island, WA. He graduated with a B.A. in Biology from Colorado College in 2008. In January 2012 he began working toward a PhD in Crop Science, in Dr. Stephen Jones’s lab at Washington State University, Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center. Brook is currently evaluating barley quality for craft malt production, food and feed utilization, as well as selecting and breeding varieties for low-input and organic systems in western Washington. In the past, he has worked on diverse livestock farms and conducted research in mountain, river, and island ecosystems.

Why is seed important to you?

Seed is the fundamental basis of our agricultural system. In the absence of seed, all the compost, chemicals, rotations, tillage, value-added processing, and direct marketing in the world could not deliver a well-rounded meal.

What led you to go into a career in plant breeding?

Plant breeding was presented to me as a way to find solutions. As an undergraduate I studied ecology, I chased wildflowers, and measured how fast nitrogen cycled in soils.  After graduating I spent time chasing pigs and measuring how fast I could build fences.  In these ways I developed an appreciation for the complexity and importance of natural ecosystems as well as an appreciation for the complexity and importance of production agriculture. I am constantly looking for ways to reconcile the needs of food production with maintaining healthy ecosystems. Plant breeding is an elegant and powerful tool for addressing these challenges.

Through breeding you have the opportunity to select for the whole picture of food. As a student I am learning how to juggle the selection of varieties that will thrive in low-input systems, meet the production demands of growers, and the quality standards of processors, while still bringing sustenance and enjoyment to consumers.

How would you characterize the importance of public plant breeders?

I see public plant breeding as vital for making varieties publicly available that meet the needs of a diverse, vibrant agriculture.

Tell us about the projects you’re working on.

Currently, I am working on the selection and development of barley varieties for low-input production and food, feed, and malt processing in western Washington. I am also interested in the utilization of dry bean flours. On a given day my work may include: evaluating on-farm variety trials, learning to make crosses, looking into the feed value of sprouted barley fodder for organic dairy production, and talking with craft maltsters about how to best celebrate the regional variation of barley character.

How did you get involved?

I kept saying yes as growers, researchers, and processors presented opportunities and challenges. Support from the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s Seed Matters fellowship in organic plant breeding and the Port of Skagit have made my research possible.

What has been most exciting or surprising about this project?

The little details keep me excited and surprised from day-to-day. Learning that barley can be violet in color, that something as seemingly simple as making sprouts can make a substantial difference for the economics of livestock production, or feeling the crunch of a properly malted barley kernel between my teeth.

What has been most challenging?

Keeping up with the curiosity and vision of the farmers and researchers that I have the privilege of learning from and working with.

Why do you believe OSA’s work is important?

OSA plays a unique role in supporting agriculture by combining advocacy and public education with on-the-ground, participatory, farmer-driven research. OSA’s work is pivotal in helping organic farmers access and develop the seed they need to thrive.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to managing and improving
crop genetics today?

Access. As a student, the most frustrating moments are learning that I can’t work with a variety, because some entity has claimed exclusive ownership of the pile of genetics that make up that seed.

What do you find hopeful or inspiring in your work as a plant breeder?

Walking through a field that is filled with genetic diversity, seeing the tall, the short and the collapsed; the disease-resistant, the sick, and the dead; and somewhere in that tangled mess seeing the couple of bright upright plants that might work. That and seeing the work my academic mentors are doing to push the science and utility of public plant breeding.

Where do you hope to land after you graduate?

I could be happy in a lot of places: farmer, breeder, extension agent, or professor.  Regardless of where I end up, I hope to remain engaged in applied agricultural research and breeding that contributes to a healthy, sane food system.

It’s the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our land grant university system. What is USDA doing well? What can the agency do better?

I have found the information and genetic resources maintained by the USDA to be incredibly powerful and useful. On the other hand, I hope that the USDA can develop the flexibility to truly support small and mid-sized operations, which are currently being squeezed through the cracks.

What changes have you seen in the land grant university system?

A few months ago, Washington State University came out with a policy, restricting a grower’s right to save and replant seed from new wheat varieties developed by Pullman based breeders. As a student at WSU I find this deeply concerning. However, I look forward to the challenge of finding alternative models of open access and funding for public breeding, and keeping the work we do at WSU-Mount Vernon firmly in the public domain.

What are our land grants doing right? What can be improved?

It is inspiring to see the tremendous increase in research related to organic agriculture.  In general, I hope that our land grant universities will continue to support research that truly meets the needs of the public.

Do you have a favorite plant variety? Why?

Some of the first advice I received on plant breeding was: “Don’t fall in love with a variety, because it won’t love you back.” Varieties may come and go as the needs of a community, and the challenges of disease and environment shift. I am coming to understand that plant breeding is a dynamic process. That is my favorite part.

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