Ali Alkaam Inad came to the U.S. as a refugee in November and is already putting his Ph.D. in Agriculture to work here. While taking a course at Washington State University, he is renting 2 acres of farmland from VIVA Farms. The Viva Farms Incubator Program began in June 2009 to provide new farmers affordable access to education, training and technical assistance; capital and credit; land and markets.
On his farm in Burlington, Ali has already planted regional vegetables and is growing a new type of white strawberry, all of which he plans to sell locally. One of the biggest differences between farming here and in Iraq is using modern techniques to reduce the amount of labor and reduce costs. Now, Ali uses weed cloth and mulch to cut down on weeds, which means he does not need to use tractors or heavy machinery to farm the land. With help from the Micro-E program, Ali has quickly transitioned from his job in Iraq and put his diverse expertise to use in the Puget Sound region.
WSU News Article about Ali"Flat Bread Lab: Newly Arrived Iraqi Farmers Explore Western Washington Wheat Opportunities"
Sarita Schaffer, WSU
Ali Inad and Ghazi Abood hail from the birthplace of wheat - the Fertile Crescent. Inad holds a PhD in Plant Breeding. He taught agriculture and researched wheat and maize at the University of Baghdad. Abood was a mechanical engineer. He received his training in Germany and has worked all over the world. Both men's careers were upended by the Iraq war so they've come to the Pacific Northwest to put down new roots.
Over the winter Inad and Abood completed Washington State University Extension's farm business planning course and in April they launched Ali's Farm, a small acreage vegetable and berry farm at Viva Farms, Washington's premier farm business incubator. Once established, they plan to scale up and grow wheat and other grains.
That's where Dr. Stephen Jones and his Bread Lab come in.
Like Dr. Inad, Dr. Jones holds a PhD in plant breeding and specializes in wheat. As the director of WSU's Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center, Jones has pioneered research on western Washington grain, emphasizing opportunities for local farmers to partner with the region's artisan bakers, brewers and flour mills.
When WSU Immigrant Farms specialist and Viva Farms director Sarita Schaffer brought the two wheat breeders together, the conversation quickly turned to flat bread and samoon, Iraq's most popular breads. Jones suggested that Inad and Abood invite a baker from their community to spend a day in the research center's bread lab, to test how Western Washington flours performed against their current ingredients. Perhaps there was an opportunity for Inad and Abood to plant, or if necessary, breed wheat especially for the Puget Sound's nascent flat bread market.
Around 2 million Iraqis fled their country between 2003 and 2011. Many are resettled in Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. But the majority, an estimated 16,000 per year, are taken in by the United States.
Ali Alabdullah, the baker selected to partake in the Flat Bread Lab, was resettled in Everett. He drives commercial trucks as his primary occupation but bakes bread and cooks between driving gigs. "I've been cooking and baking for 30 years," Alabdullah told us as he kneaded a batch of flat bread dough. "I have six sisters and five brothers so my mother was always cooking. I remember being swatted at for touching the bread. My first job was to flip the bread when it was done cooking."
Dr. Jones looked over Ali Alabdullah's shoulder as he mixed, kneaded, and shaped the dough. He studied the baker's proportions of white versus whole wheat flour and asked him what qualities he looks for in his flour. What flavor and texture? How much elasticity? What strength? Dr. Jones showed Ali, Dr. Inad and Ghazi the sophisticated rheological testing equipment that gives the bread lab its Willy-Wonka flair: a farinograph that measures the dough's sheer and viscosity, an alveograph that measures flexibility by inflating a bubble in a thin sheet of the dough until it bursts, a consistograph to calculate water absorption and strength, and a falling number machine that measures the amount of sprout damage that has occurred within a wheat sample.
So what's the verdict? Is there flat bread wheat growing future in store for new Skagit Valley farmers like Inad and Abood?
The baker was delighted with the results. So were the researchers and graduate students who were drawn to the lab as the smell of fresh flat bread and samoon wafted down the halls of the research center. "I think you would have a larger market beyond just serving refugee families - I'd buy it!" exclaimed one taster.
For now, Inad and Abood will focus on the vegetable and berry crops they've planted at Viva Farms, including a rare white strawberry variety that Dr. Inad is growing from seed. But with the flat bread lab's positive results, they see wheat fields in their future.