By Marlene Fritz
It looks like a kitchen and, at first, that's what her many intrigued visitors think it is. "But it's not," says Katherine O'Brien, UI cereal chemist and manager of the Idaho Wheat Quality Research Laboratory at Aber-deen. "It's a controlled laboratory environment for scientific experiments."
First built in 1962 with funding from the Idaho Wheat Commission and the Idaho Legislature, the original 1,800-square foot laboratory was expanded by about 480 square feet this fall. The $144,000 remodel-$97,000 from the IWC-will allow O'Brien and her four-person staff to more efficiently store and evaluate the 12,000 to 14,000 individual wheat samples they receive each year.
The samples come from wheat-breeding trials conducted by UI geneticists Ed Souza and Bob Zemetra and from other studies led by UI Extension educators and specialists. The building's new energy-efficient roof, windows, and furnace will keep its humidity and temperature uniform, and its additional space will let O'Brien take some analytical equipment out of mothballs and-funding permitted-put several new testing devices on order.
Hans Hayden, IWC commissioner from Arbon, calls the laboratory central to the success of the UI wheat-breeding program. Since 1989, Souza and Zemetra have released 24 new wheats, including varieties with exceptional gluten strength (like Moreland), noodle color (like Idaho 377s), and cookie quality (like Brundage and Alturas).
Wheat quality as "absolute necessity"
"I would hate to see where the Idaho wheat industry would be if we hadn't had the wheat quality laboratory," says Hayden. "In the last 10 to 15 years, wheat quality has become an absolute necessity to selling wheat. Farmers never used to worry about it: wheat was wheat and somebody would make bread out of it. But, that's not the case anymore. Now if we don't grow quality wheat, Australia and Canada will take our markets from us."
Wheat buyers from even the poorest of the world's nations are demanding consistency and predictability in the wheats they buy. They've joined other countries in automating their food manufacturing processes-and automated systems tolerate only infinitesimal variability. "What are you going to do if the cookie doesn't fit into the package?" Hayden asks. "Everywhere we go, we need to have more information available on our wheats, and we need to have it quicker."
Wheat breeders also count on quality lab
That's true of breeders Souza and Zemetra as well. They have only a few weeks between harvesting their experimental lines and deciding which ones to discard or replant next year. That gives O'Brien very little time to provide them with the 10 to 20 dense columns of quality test results that help inform their decisions. Together with such agronomic factors as yields and pest resistance, the laboratory's depth of data helps Souza and Zemetra separate each year's winners from its losers.
"We try to make a judgment that a sample meets minimum standards in all categories and has merit in more than a few, but it's difficult," says Souza. "Wheat quality is not a static type of physical measurement. You're measuring a dynamic biological system and how that system interacts with human taste. That's pretty complicated."
Accelerated pace, new tests
When Souza first arrived at the UI Aberdeen Research and Extension Center in 1988, the laboratory was "pretty much doing the same cookie and bread bake tests they had done in 1962," he says. "In the last 15 years, the number of different tests that have been devised, and the levels of sophistication that the industry demands have increased dramatically. The pace has really accelerated, and it's very visible in this lab."
O'Brien's staff will continue baking sample cookies and bread loaves, as they've always done, but will probably halve their numbers-to perhaps 1,000 sugar snap cookies for soft wheats and 600 to 800 small "pup" loaves for hard wheats. These older tests consume more time, energy, and money than newer tests, which provide essential information to breeders earlier in the selection process at significantly lower unit costs.
"We are continually pressed to keep pace with industry and to run more and more volume," says Souza. "How do we do that? We have to use less expensive tests." But the less expensive tests don't forfeit information: "They take apart the physical characteristics of the bake tests and look at individual pieces," he says. "In a word, they 'sense-ationalize' the products."
In the wheat quality laboratory, scales, mills, shakers, grinders, rol-lers, flatteners and ovens share gleam- ing counter and floor space with high- ly specialized equipment, including:
. A single-kernel hardness analyzer to examine grain kernels for uniformity and target-market suitability
. Near-infrared technology to nondestructively measure protein quality and hardness without grinding samples
. A combustion nitrogen analyzer to chemically determine protein levels
. A moisture oven to bake all samples to a uniform 14 percent moisture
. A rapid visco analyzer (O'Brien calls it a "really expensive gravy maker") to evaluate starch gelling properties
. A mixograph to determine a sample's optimum mixing time and flour-to-water ratio
. An SDS sedimentation analyzer to project potential loaf volume from gluten volume
. An ashing oven to measure bran levels and milling efficiency from product ashes
. A noodle-sheeting device to evaluate noodle color, both immediately and after 24 hours
Room for more equipment
The remodeled spaces will allow Souza to put an alveograph on line. As a result, international customers of French tradition-from markets like Latin America and Indochina-will be able to get data they've long used to evaluate a wheat's potential for French breads and, more recently, for cookies and cakes. With additional funding, Souza and O'Brien hope to add a farinograph that will let customers compare a long list of bread-dough mixing characteristics with their own specific requirements and a texture analyzer that actually simulates the bite of a human jaw.
Setting national standards
According to Souza, the laboratory sets national standards in its ability to measure the impacts on wheat quality of such production practices as fertilization and irrigation. "Wheats are very complex interactions of lots of different genes and how they are turned on and off by the environment," he says. "That's why we look at wheats across lots of different environments and lots of different years." Recently, for example, the laboratory provided test results that helped CALS colleagues Jason Ells-worth and Brad Brown determine how Stephens wheat that has been fertilized at variable nitrogen rates reacts to different irrigation scenarios.
Among the laboratory's many visitors each year are international trade teams, wheat marketers, and elevator operators. Each spring, O'Brien and Souza invite local hard wheat growers to come and bake their own sample pup loaves. "It's part of total supply-chain management," says Souza. "Everybody in the Idaho wheat production system-from the farmer who plants it to the end-user who buys it-understands the goal. The goal is to produce a great product at a profit."
Contact Katherine O'Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ed Souza at email@example.com.