The Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project hosted its fourth spring farmers meeting at the Long Tom Grange outside Junction City, Oregon on Monday, April 11. Approximately forty people, about half of them farmers, were in attendance for the informal farmer and bulk buyer forum to discuss the 2011 growing season. The primary focus of all the previous spring farmer meetings has been production–what can be grown, where to get the seeds, when to plant, how to combat the weeds, insights into harvest. Marketing and infrastructure were a lesser part of those earlier meetings, but the 2011 meeting focused on these issues, suggesting that a degree of competency has been reached regarding the production of several varieties of grains and beans.
The Long Tom Grange is about six miles west off Highway 99W on Ferguson Road and is set amid a cluster of tall fir trees in the foothills of the Coastal Mountain Range in some of the most beautiful farmland in all of Oregon. It had rained heavily the night before, and except for a few showers and some scattered hail, the sun was out more often than not on this very typical April afternoon in western Oregon. The good weather surely kept a few farmers from attending and made for a slightly smaller group than gathered at the River Bend Resort in Harrisburg for the Bean and Grain Project fall 2010 meeting. But those that attended represented the core bean and grain growers, all well acquainted with each other, and all considerably invested in the production of beans and grains. While not the largest meeting, it was arguably the best in terms of ease of communication and the smoothness with which the material on the agenda was covered, again highlighted by the increasing depth of knowledge of those at the table and the steady sophistication of the bean and grain discussion.
The farmers and bulk buyers in attendance were seated around a cluster of five tables in the center of the grange's largest room. Others that attended–local food activists and interested citizens–sat around the edge of the room as observers. Representatives from Open Oak Farm, Hunton Family Farm, A2R Farms, Sunbow Farm, Lonesome Whistle Farm, Stalford Seed Farms, J&D Farms, Horse Creek Farm, Hands-on Organics, and Greenhill Farm were present, along with James Henderson the buyer from Hummingbird Wholesale and Jason Lafferty the owner of SnoTemp Cold Storage.
As has been the case the last few meetings, Dan Armstrong facilitated the discussion. In opening the meeting, he repeated his by now familiar refrain that the farmer meetings were intended as a networking opportunity and were just the beginning of a conversation that should continue between farmers and buyers in the following weeks and months as they saw each other in local coffee shops or seed stores. He also accented the fact that so far two collaborative efforts–the recently formed Willamette Seed and Grain LLC and the recently opened Camas Country Mill–have been generated through these meetings, and the hope is that more collaborative efforts will be prompted.
Harry MacCormack made the opening statement. His topic was the weather. Harry, who has just completed a new book, Cosmic Influences on Agricultural Processes, voiced his concern about weather pattern changes in the northwest over the last forty years. He remarked that the long, cool, and wet springs of 2008, 2009, and 2010 reminded him of the way the valley was when he first came to Oregon in the 1970s. He expects this trend to continue and that the warmer weather witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s may be passing. He said this with specific emphasis on the growing of beans. The kinds of results he got in his early trials in 2006 and 2007 may be difficult to recreate if the weather does in fact go through the short-term cooling trend he anticipates. After what has been almost six straight weeks of rain, this prognosis is too easy to believe and underlines the continued search for beans with shorter (60 to 70-day) growing periods.
After Harry's opening comments, introductions proceeded around the tables and to the observers. The farms were asked to state where their farm was, how they fit into the Bean and Grain Project, and what they planned to grow in 2011. Because the ground is generally too wet for heavy equipment this time of year, and certainly is this year, planting is more often dictated by the weather than a penciled out planting schedule. Due to this, most of the farmers simply spoke to what they hoped to plant and what the acreage would be. The overall response suggested a cut back in bean production and an increase in grain diversity and acreage. There will also be a slight increase this year in the amount of farmland transitioned to organic and the amount of transitioned land becoming organic. This will push the total amount of farmland in transition or already transitioned to organic to over 1000 acres since the beginning of the project.
While garbanzo beans and lentils will remain in the mix, and surely pole beans and heirloom beans will be part of the plans at Open Oak Farm and Lonesome Whistle Farm, the diversity of grains to be grown stood out–emmer, spelt, buckwheat, rye, red and white wheat, soft and hard wheat, barley, oats, millet, dry corn, and flax will all see more growers and increased acreage. To some extent this can be attributed to the two new milling operations in the south valley–Willamette Seed and Grain LLC and Camas Country Mill–currently up and running or soon to be.
Infrastructure: From the beginning, the Bean and Grain Project has pushed for increased access to the machinery and infrastructure necessary for the production and processing of local grains and beans. One of the central purposes of this April meeting was to inventory equipment and infrastructure owned by the farmers taking part in the Bean and Grain Project forum. Following the introductions, the discussion was directed to this inventory–asking: what equipment was out there now, what new equipment would be available at the time of harvest, what other equipment was needed, and what services might growers be looking for from the other farms.
Clint Lindsey from A2R Farms, Harry MacCormack from Sunbow Farm, Mary Ann Jasper, Gian Mercurio, and Michael Brown from Stalford Seed Farms were at the table representing their farms and the recently formed Willamette Seed and Grain LLC. The collaborative effort of these three farms through WS&G will include milling, oat rolling, seed cleaning, and the sale and distribution of bean and grains. According to those at the table, WS&G currently has two certified organic seed cleaners, several grain mills–one online now and others that will come online later this year, and a portable oat roller.
A2R Farms also has a 1400-gallon compost tea brewer, and Harry MacCormack noted that the table top seed cleaner bought through a grant by the Ten Rivers Food Web three years ago now resides at Sunbow Farm.
Tom Hunton of Hunton Family Farm announced that his latest project, the Camas Country Mill, opened for business a few days earlier on April 7th. (See article in Register-Guard.) Along with a 40" stone mill, Tom said Camas Country Mill also has a portable dehuller and Hunton's Warehouse has a gravity table and certified organic seed cleaning capacity. (Contact Camas Country Mill or Surecrop Farm Serves for quotes on custom milling or seed cleaning.) Tom advised that they will require strict requirements for well cleaned grains prior to accepting custom milling jobs.
Andrew Still of Open Oak Farm said that Open Oak has a small seed cleaner, a large seed cleaner that they are refurbishing, a number of bean drying bins, and some modest on-farm milling capacity. Open Oak is currently using recycled 55-gallon organic food barrels for grain and bean storage, which Andrew said work very well. He also expressed a need for the services of an oil seed press. (Willamette Biomass Processors in Rickreal is one local oil seed press that is already open for business.)
Jeff Broadie of Lonesome Whistle Farm, which has just moved from its 6-acre farm on River Road Loop to a new 26-acre farm in the same area, said they have a large number of bean drying bins. Jeff mentioned that they would eventually like to own a corn dryer or have access to one. They are growing three types of dry corn.
Storage remains one of the greatest unanswered needs, particularly for grains. All the farms could use more high-quality, temperature controlled dry storage. It would be advantageous for both the new mills to have at least one year maybe 18 months worth of grain in storage at all times in case of an off year. More on-farm storage would also give farmers increased flexibility when it comes times to sell their beans or grains.
At this time, there are no immediate plans for building substantial grain or bean storage, primarily because of the size of the capital outlay involved; however, there is little doubt storage will eventually have to be addressed.
Jason Lafferty of SnoTemp Cold Storage (541-343-1694) said SnoTemp has 375,000 square feet of frozen storge (0-18 degrees F) and 12,000 square feet of cold storage (34 degrees F) in Albany and 175,000 square feet of frozen storage and 16,000 square feet of cold storage in Eugene. He gave an estimated cost of $10,000 a month to store a million pounds of product. This could be either beans or grains. SnoTemp can also do short-term freezing of products to eliminate bugs at $10/pallet. This could be a very valuable service.
James Henderson, the sales rep for Hummingbird Wholesale, said that there would be some storage available ($7-10 per pallet per month) in the new Hummingbird Wholesale building later this year when remodeling work was completed.
Harry MacCormack floated the idea of community assisted storage. This would involve neighborhood communities getting the funds together to buy on-farm storage facilities and to store product there that they bought from the farm for the neighborhood's use over time.
Considering that the only equipment available three years ago was the table top seed cleaner at Sunbow Farm and Stalford Seed Farms' grass seed cleaning facility, it is clear that the south valley is slowly pulling together the infrastructure and machinery for grain production and to a lesser extent for bean production. Several farmers noted, however, that getting proper screens for seed cleaners has been difficult, often taking as long as six-months for special order screens.
Marketing: During the second half of the meeting, the discussion moved from infrastructure and equipment to marketing and marketing strategies. In the past four years steady progress has been made with the production of wheat and other grains and some of the bean varieties, but there is concern, particularly for the beans, that as more farms experiment with staple crops that supply could outrun demand. Most of the ideas expressed by those at the table were directed at outreach to and education for the public.
The non-profits like Ten Rivers Food Web and the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition are a natural fit for continuing the push to accent locally grown products. They are already on this path and simply need to place emphasis on beans and grains as a necessary part, really the foundation, of rebuilding the food system, the underlying purpose for all of Bean and Grain Project work.
Dan Armstrong brought up the question of the value of farmers' markets or online services (like Ecotrust's Foodhub and Eugene Local Foods) for the sale of beans and grains. For the grains, where production methods require large acreage and generate hundreds of thousands of pounds of product, farmers' markets are mostly relegated to token sales. Andrew Still suggested, however, that the presence of flour and grain vendors at the farmers' markets were valuable outlets for advertising and public outreach. Consumers can see the product and in some cases talk to the farmer who grew the grains. For the beans, especially the heirloom beans, the markets and the online vendors are considerably more useful.
Tom Hunton mentioned the need for recipes as a marketing tool. He felt that we should have recipes to hand out at the farmers' market with the various grains that are sold, some of which are new to buyers' cooking skills. The recipes would act both as an incentive to buy and as an educational tool for cooking with grains and beans
Krishna Khalsa seconded this idea, adding that the Lane Community College Culinary Arts Program will be serving various grain dishes at the Fill-Your-Pantry Market in Eugene on April 30 (See flyer) to demonstrate a variety of savory and nutritious bean and grain dishes. This event will be much like the Fill-Your-Pantry Market that took place last year outside Corvallis at A2R Farms. Lynne Fessenden suggested that maybe the non-profits could sponsor workshops to teach the public how to cook with beans and grains.
Harry MacCormack emphasized the need to get the names of the farms and mills that are growing and/or milling wheat into public awareness. Several of the farms are now selling wheat or flour to area bakeries–Nature Bake, Dave's Killer Bread, and the Bread Stop to name three–that supply local markets with quite a lot of sandwich bread, and while some of the loafs are labeled either Oregon grown or Willamette Valley grown, there is no mention of the farms that grew the wheat or the mill that milled it. Including the source farm name or the source mill name on the wrappers is important. Connecting the story to the product, particularly the wheat, should be an integral part of the marketing strategy.
Dan Armstrong asked what has been observed regarding the demand for organic products versus transitional. This was something that has been part of the bean and grain discussion from the beginning. Harry MacCormack said he felt that for some products, particularly the beans, that organic was important, but as far as he could tell, transitional was still very valid for the grains.
Andrew Still asked about the potential of selling grain seconds or triticale or cover crops like Australian peas as livestock feed. This idea bounced around the table with considerable energy, but it soon became apparent that the group didn't know very much about the market. Still it was clear that livestock feed was an avenue of sales that needed to be explored further. This discussion led back to the need for storage. Critical to all grain production, whether for humans or livestock, is having storage to hold the grain for extended periods of time. Perhaps a livestock feed broker would be a valuable addition to the Bean and Grain Project conversation at the next meeting. (Union Point Custom Feeds (541-954-0945) just south of Brownsville, offers USDA Organic custom animal feed.)
Next Meeting: As the meeting wound down, a few subjects were tossed out to address in the fall farmers meeting. Some of those topics include cooperatives and/or cooperation, finding investors for infrastructure needs, plant breeding, compost tea use, grains for livestock, and labor needs and cooperatives.
Though the meeting officially ended at five, many of the farmers and food advocates stayed around until six just talking and jawing over the topics of the day. It is always part of the farmers meeting strategy to leave some time afterward for socializing and individual discussions between farmers, buyers, and advocates. In the end, there was little doubt that the Bean and Grain Project work was advancing step by step, farmer by farmer, one growing season to the next.
1. There are now more than 1000 acres in transition to organic or already organic in the collection of farms that regularly attend the Bean and Grain Project meetings.
2. The diversification of grains grown in the southern Willamette Valley and the local custom milling of those grains is a huge step forward in the work of the Bean and Grain Project. Two milling operations and upwards to fifteen farms growing more than ten varieties of grain for them is a significant advance.
3. Dry-land beans are still problematic. Garbanzos and lentils can handle the cool springs and are a good fit for this region. Demand for garbanzos, however, is more of a concern than supply. Black beans and pinto beans have proven difficult to farm in quantity, both for the shortness of the growing season and for the short stature of the plants that makes them difficult to combine. For now, most of the dry-land beans we see in this area are heirloom varieties sold at premium prices because so much of the work must be done by hand.
4. Seed crops are still being explored. Flax is a multi-purpose plant, creating seed and fiber, that several farmers are growing. Buckwheat will always be grown as a cover crop. Finding economic niches for buckwheat seed and flour is still a work in progress. Millet, amaranth, and quinoa are still exploratory seed crops. Seeds for oil is similarly just beginning to be investigated. An oil press would be a valuable addition to local on-farm infrastructure.
5. Public education is an absolutely critical part of the process. Cooking with an expanded set of grains, beans, and seeds is new to a majority of American cooks. There may be no better way to extend the food dollar and increase a meal's nutritional value than cooking with whole grains and beans. Providing recipes with the sale of the product or sponsoring cooking workshops could be key marketing strategies. It would also prompt buyers to expand their cuisine and their awareness for eating from the local foodshed.
6. It is important for local bakeries to acknowledge the farms or mills from which they source their grains and flour. Name recognition and a story are a key part of the marketing strategy.
7. After four years, the infrastructure is beginning to form around grain production. The availability of two milling business and three certified organic seed cleaners should prompt more interest in local grains and seeds. Along with the two mills and seed cleaners, Bean and Grain Project related equipment includes an oat roller, a gravity table, and a dehuller.
8. Bean drying capacity is growing a little more slowly. Two new small farms are growing dry beans and are slowly expanding their bean drying bin numbers.
9. Quality dry storage remains an unanswered need. There is some potential for storage at SnoTemp Cold Storage, but eventually on-farm storage or mill storage must be addressed.
As always, feedback to this webpage is welcome. If you attended the meeting, feel free to offer corrections or additions. In the end, the Bean and Grain Project meetings, farm tours, and these articles are meant as a forum about growing beans, grains, and edible seeds as field crops in the Willamette Valley. Discussion and the sharing of ideas are themes central to the project. Click to email.
Special Thanks to Lynne Fessenden and Andrew Still for helping set up the meeting, to the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and the Ten Rivers Food Web for their sponsorship, and to Hummingbird Wholesale and the Evergreen Hill Fund of Oregon Community Foundation for their continued support. Photos courtesy of Krishna Khalsa.