by Cassandra Landry Mise Magazine
If there’s one thing to say about Western Washington’s Skagit Valley, home to that little Bread Lab that’s smashing everyone’s ideas about wheat into sad little pathetic pieces, it’s that these people are jacked on farming. The drive up to Mount Vernon is a straight shot from Seattle, and once you’ve entered the Valley’s hallowed ground, the signs begin in earnest: tune in to 1630 AM for crop reports and farm history on “InFARMation,” a program put on by Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and the Skagit Valley College radio station. State Route 536 is not just the scenic route, it’s theagricultural scenic route. When I approach the address I’ve been given for Dr. Stephen Jones’s now-renowned lab, I half-expect to just drive up to the edge of a wheat field and wade through it until I run into someone. What I actually encounter is a stolid little building right off the main drag, a few cars parked in the lot, with greenhouses and fields visible in the distance.
This lab looks unassuming, sure, but it has established itself as the anchor of a massive sea change in the food industry. Since being given the star treatment in Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, they’re often brought on as a sort of expert witness in the larger conversation around our food systems; their existence proof that something good is happening, that it’s not all completely fucked. Or that it is, but at least there’s hope.
As a result of this sudden exposure, the story of ringmaster Stephen Jones is well-known to most by now. His love affair with wheat that began as a Chico State student in 1977 with five acres to cultivate a crop of his choice (“I had a ‘48 Ford pickup, and I’d go out in the afternoons and have a beer and sit on the roof of that truck, just looking at my wheat. Just staring at it, for months and months,” he says, a little dreamily) his passion for baking handed down from his Polish grandmother, his hatred of the commodity game and eventual rejection of it, his fierce loyalty to farmers. He indulges, and encourages, every facet of a curious mind.
“Besides being scientists, we’re poets and musicians. I think that’s really important. We talk about art, not in a stupid way, about how it intersects with how we go about our jobs, as opposed to just sitting at the bench and cranking through stuff, looking through a microscope,” he says. “We try to not be reductionist, which is tough to do…we have to make a conscious effort to not fall into the comfort of just being scientists.”
He is a true believer in the political and philosophical ideal through whatever means possible, and his unwavering conviction has brought together a group of people that in any other circumstance might seem destined to fracture—a deeply spiritual baker alongside matter-of-fact geneticists—if not for the fact that they are all completely captivated by the same crop, and by Jones himself.
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