"Grains are vital…Vital for our food sovereignty and our food security." -Steve Jones 2/9/2012.
"The Northern California counties, Mendocino, Butte, Humboldt, are dong it. We're doing it in Washington, of course. It's happening here in the Willamette Valley. Vermont is doing it on a state-wide level. Maine is doing it on a state-wide level. Maine and Vermont, by 1930, had no wheat at all. Prior to that, Vermont was the bread basket for New England for many, many years. Then they went off the radar completely. You think we're starting from scratch? They don't even have combines. At least we have combines. I'm going to Asheville, North Carolina in a month. There's a big group in Asheville. There's a mill and artisan bakers in Alaska. It's safe to say that most areas that lost their capability to produce their own grains want them back." -Steve Jones 2/9/2012.
Something's happening here. And Steve Jones knows exactly what it is. It's a nationwide movement in the regional farming communities of America to revive their capacity to grow and process grains, particularly wheat. It's happening quietly. It's happening independently here and there from Alaska to North Carolina to Tempe, Arizona. Little groups like the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project determined to jump start the lost art of growing and milling local grains as the foundation for rebuilding their regional food sovereignty. When you really get into it, when you look at it closely, you see how smart this is, how much sense it makes, how important it is, and what a great way it is for bringing communities together.
Nationally recognized, organic wheat specialist Dr. Steve Jones may know this better than anyone else. In the past few years he has traveled all round the United States talking about the rebirth of local grains and artisan bakeries. He's seen the little mills pop up. He's spoken to the farmers and the bakers. He works with several growers here in the northwest–up in Mount Vernon, Washington where his lab is, in Applegate, Oregon, and here in the Willamette Valley. But he talks and works with farmers from all over. The scientist and long-time wheat breeder is actively sharing his knowledge with farmers who may never have grown grains before. You might even say Steve is the gluten that binds the grain movement into bread. And in Steve Jones' words, "It's hopping right now. It really is."
A scientist and professor, Dr. Steve Jones is arguably one of the premier local wheat breeders and artisan bread researchers in the United States. He received a Masters Degree in Agricultural Science and a PhD. in Genetics at the University of California, Davis. He began his professional career as a cytogeneticist at Washington State University in 1991. By 1995, he was Washington State's wheat breeder, overseeing grain production on Washington's two and a half million acres of commodity wheat. Over the next ten years, he gradually transitioned out of breeding wheat for the commodity market to breeding local and organic wheat for nutrition and flavor. He is currently the Director of the WSU Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon, Washington in the beautiful 80,000 acre Skagit Valley. He teaches graduate courses in Advanced Transmission Genetics and the History and Ethics of Genetics. His research is aimed at growing grains on the small and midsized farms of western Washington. He is particularly interested in making bread from local wheat and will soon add a bread lab to the research center in Mount Vernon. Dr. Jones is also part of the Advisory Board for the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Organic Seed Alliance.
Got to Steve Jones' website.
The Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project has been part of this movement, like the other players acting pretty much on its own, since 2007. During that time, the Willamette Valley has seen an increase in the number of farmers growing grains and beans, a steady increase in the acreage of conventional farmland transitioned to organic, two new grain mills built specifically for local milling, a growing number of bakeries using local wheat, field trials for more than forty varieties of dry-land beans, an explosion in grain production–wheat, triticale, rye, spelt, barley, oats, teff, flax, buckwheat, and a growing enthusiasm for the Fill-Your-Pantry Market aimed at the direct farm sale of grains and beans. Critical to this work has been a sometimes slow, sometimes painful, trial and error drive to build a body of knowledge specific to growing organic beans and grains in the Willamette Valley.
When Dr. Steve Jones came to Eugene in February of 2011 to speak at the Food Justice Conference at the University of Oregon, several members of the Bean and Grain Project were in the audience, spoke with him during his stay, and made the connection that would become his visit this year. His many years of experience breeding wheat and working with farmers made him the perfect addition to Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project's Fifth Annual Winter Farmers' Meeting, where the emphasis would be on what we've learned about growing local grains so far.
The meeting, sponsored by the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, was held at the Long Tom Grange outside Junction City, Oregon on February 9, 2012. The twenty or so growers and potential growers who came to the grange hall on this mild but gray winter afternoon represented the core of the Bean and Grain Project. All were individuals who have been following the bean and grain conversation for more than a couple of years and all were growing beans, wheat, and/or other grains including dry corn varieties for milling.
The group sat around four tables pulled together in the center of the meeting hall. Dan Armstrong opened the meeting with a brief description of the Bean and Grain Project and where it is today. He then introduced Dr. Steve Jones who reviewed his personal history of growing and breeding grains. Harry MacCormack, the inspiration behind the Bean and Grain Project, made a few comments about his ongoing work with dry-land beans and his goal of finding varieties that can be grown in the Willamette Valley's cooling maritime climate. Introductions then proceeded counter-clockwise around the table, allowing each grower to say where his or her farm was located and what they've been growing.
The farms in attendance were Hunton Family Farm, Stalford Seed Farms, Sunbow Farm, Open Oak Farm, Lonesome Whistle Farm, Horseshoe Lake Farm, Diamond Hill Farms, and Greenhill Farm. Representatives from Green Willow Grains, Camas Country Mill, Willamette Seed and Grain, LLC, and Hummingbird Wholesale were also present.
Once the introductions were completed, a round table discussion took place featuring questions from the farmers to Steve Jones. Dan Armstrong acted as discussion facilitator, but, as has become common in these meetings, there was little need for facilitation. The conversation flowed steady and politely at a remarkable level of sophistication. This, as much as anything, showed the project's evolution. The level of knowledge at the table, certainly thanks to Steve Jones' presence, was as high as it's ever been. As a group, as a collection of farmers, this particular farming community is steadily educating itself through continuing field trials and the exchange of information between growers. Through what has been five years plus of missteps and mistakes, good harvests and bad, a real body of knowledge has been created and exists in the community of farmers and the articles written about the meetings. That body of knowledge made a quantum leap forward on February 9 with the help of Steve Jones.
Perennial Wheat: In his introduction, Steve Jones mentioned that he'd worked on the development of perennial wheat lines. Wes Jackson of the Kansas Land Institute has long studied the part of perennials in the ecology of the American prairie. Bill Mollison, the noted permaculturist, always stresses perennial plants as the foundation of his teachings. Perennials are known to be a powerful way to sequester carbon, and in the Willamette Valley, where many of the farmers have experience producing seed with perennial grasses, the idea of a perennial wheat is attractive. It prompted the meeting's first question.
What is your experience with perennial wheat?
Steve Jones first became interested in perennial wheat when he attended UC Davis and learned of the work of agriculturalist Coit Suneson. Suneson began experimenting with perennial lines of wheat at Davis after World War II. He continued this work until 1962 and in that time came up with a three-year wheat that produced seventy percent of the yield annual wheat does–something Steve said they wished they could recreated today. Unfortunately, little of Suneson's work with perennials survives today.
Steve became directly involved in breeding perennial wheat in 1995 for three reasons–it's ability to control erosion, the reduced need for tillage, and the perennial plant's capacity to grow longer roots that mine deeper into the soil. His students, who worked with the Kansas Land Institute, sought wheats with disease resistance, vigorous re-growth, thresh-ability, and quality. One problem he encountered with his perennial wheat was that the vagaries of the weather could induce it to head in mid-winter, much too early, suggesting it may be necessary to cut or graze perennial wheat as part of the process.
Though Steve's funding for this research ran out two years ago, he still maintains a few experimental fields with a goal of finding a two-year wheat to rotate with potatoes. He said there is perennial wheat in the ground in Skagit Valley that will grow to be seven-feet tall. In the end, however, he said a good, predictable perennial wheat is still a work in progress.
See article on Perennial Wheat and Steve's work in NY Times article.
Field Trials and Farmer Participation: Steve emphasized that as a breeder he uses three different types of breeding techniques: evolutionary (where a cross is made in the greenhouse–as it's been done for over 100 years, it's placed in the field, and left for several years to forces of the environment and evolution), participatory (where a cross is made, it's placed in a farmer's field, and at harvest the farmer directly selects out the traits he's looking for), and evolutionary-participatory (where a cross is made, it's put in the field and left to the forces of the environment and evolution, and then after several years the farmer selects out what he wants). While all are slightly different and useful, Steve stressed the importance of farmer participation.
In what ways do you work with farmers?
Along with the research center farm's test plots, Steve and his students maintain test plots on farms throughout northwest Washington–on Whidbey Island, in Jefferson County, on the Olympic peninsula, and north and south of the lab in Mount Vernon. They use these plots in two ways–breeding and management. For breeding trails, they go directly into the farmer's field and plant, then leave it alone.
"We want them to do their natural practices, especially if it's organic. We just plant there the day they do and we harvest when they do. That's it. They do the rest. If they are going to harrow to control weeds, they go right through our plots. If it's a conventional field, they do whatever they do. We look at that as being more relevant in the long run than us controlling production, hyper controlling it. In other situations, we are looking at the management, so it's not breeding. There we do control the practices with an intention to raise the protein in the hard red winter wheat and the bread that's made from it."
What management practices do you suggest for organic growers who want higher protein?
"As organic growers, you all know that there are years when you're not getting high enough protein. What we know in a conventional field is, if you want high protein, you put the nitrogen on at heading. You just nail it. You can get it on there through foliar methods if there's moisture or, if there's no moisture, you put it on and you irrigate. That's how you're going to raise the protein, and you'll raise the protein level a couple percent easy if you put it on right at heading and you're putting on 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre. That's in 100-bushel wheat. That's 3-ton wheat. You put it on and it will raise it that much. If you put it on too early, it's going into yield so you're going to loose the protein level. In the Skagit Valley and further northwest, there's no point putting on a lot of nitrogen in the fall. With the rain, a lot of it is going to be lost one way or another–or you run the risk of your crop overgrowing and becoming so luxurious it's getting disease and it's falling over or it yields so much you don't have enough protein."
"One of my PhD students, Karen Hills, comes down to work with Andrew Ross at Oregon State. She was just here last week in his quality lab before ours is set up. What she's working on, in a certified organic situation, is how do you raise the protein? What she found is almost exactly what's happening in a conventional field. She uses several rates of top dressing with nitrogen–0, 20, 40, 60, 80 pounds per acre, with a commercial mix that's basically pelleted chicken feather meal. And what she found with the 80 pounds is you don't need it. Protein levels off about 60 pounds per acre. In our conditions, any more than that it's not worth it economically."
Steve also mentioned the importance of having sulfur in the soil when growing wheat.
Tom Hunton of Hunton Family Farm and Camas Country Mill suggested that farmers check the cover crop calculator on the Oregon State website for more information.
Amino Acids and The Bread Lab: One facet of the organic production of grains and beans that has long fascinated Harry MacCormack, more than the protein percentage question, has been the amino acids that make up the proteins and how those amino acids affect the flavor and the nutritional value of the grain.
Is there any way to get researchers to look at individual amino acid chains to see if there are amino acid differences in the conventional wheat and the locally produced organic wheat (which seems to taste so much better)?
"We can do that in wheat," answered Steve, "and it's been done, and they've tried to breed wheats for higher lysine and things like that. The problem with wheats—and I agree with what the question is asking, it's worth doing—but the problem with wheat is that we're making something out of it. We're making an end product, not just boiling and eating it like the wheat berry chili we're having today. There's no real end use properties that are important there, other than flavor and that it doesn't fall apart. However, once we grind it and wet it and work it into a dough, then the functionality of it gets very complicated. If we mess a lot with the amino acids, which make up those proteins, which make up the glutens and the gliadins, then we have problems functionally–it may not act like bread. So it's a real dance between how much we can alter that end of the protein and how we're going to get a pizza dough that's acceptable or a bread or a cookie or cracker, whatever. There are some issues there. Some of that work has been done and can be done. But we get right into functionality."
This led to what has become the latest focus of Steve Jones' work in Mount Vernon–the new bread lab. These questions regarding amino acid chains and proteins are just the sort of things that can be addressed in the bread lab.
"One thing that we're adding at the research center, that I'm starting this summer, is a laboratory. We're calling it the bread lab. It's just bread and it's just local craft and artisan bread that we'll be doing there. So we'll have rheological equipment, and we hope to bring in small scale millers, growers, and bakers who can test and blend flours."
"We'll do full bakes there. We have bakers who are interested in just the fermentation process. Many bakers are interested in flavor profiles, but also if we have low protein hard reds, what can we do with them—besides the poultry avenue or something like that. We're doing malting too. We're doing malting with wheats and barleys, but with these high end goals, malts and bread, two very high end goals, what happens when we don't make that goal? And that's where the growers are really struggling in terms of having a poultry or livestock channel. But really we're trying to mature the system so that we don't have a wreck at the end. Right. If we're growing wheat and grains and beans out of place, we have to be sure that the system is mature enough to handle it."
That is, what do we do with substandard product?
"What questions aren't being asked by other labs? What questions aren't we asking? That's what we want to do at our lab. Can we have lower protein wheats that do well as bread? The protein numbers are fairly arbitrary. Fifteen percent is a target–not a necessity."
This is a refreshing perspective we don't hear very often!
Steve also talked quite a bit about wheat blending, either by bakers or large distributors–or even in a field's population of varieties. At the global market level, high protein wheats are almost always blended with lower protein wheats to create a specific grade. This is not something we see with local wheat growers.
Though the Bread Lab website is not currently up and running, when it is, the url will be thebreadlabmv.wsu.edu.
Stripe Rust: Certainly one of the biggest problems with growing wheat, particularly organic wheat, in the northwest, specifically western Oregon, is stripe rust. The spring of 2011 was extremely wet and cool. Stripe rust, particularly in the winter wheat, was everywhere–really more places than it wasn't. With Steve Jones at the table, the stripe rust question came up more than once and was talked about in several different ways.
What can organic growers do to combat stripe rust in western Oregon?
Steve said right away that stripe rust was something that necessitated constant vigilance. "We are breathing stripe rust spores right now," he said to the group sitting around the table. "They're here right now floating around. It's coming in from the south or it's coming from where it overwintered here, along the big rivers. It's just everywhere. If the situation is right, the spores will be there."
With that as the backdrop, Steve said the key was variety. Using the most recent rust resistant wheat varieties was the best way to combat stripe rust. He highly suggested going to the WSU website for plant breeding to see their test results for hard, soft, red, white, spring, and winter wheats. For good rust resistant varieties, he recommended Norwest 553 for a hard winter wheat, Patwin for a hard white spring wheat, and Lassik for a hard red spring wheat.
Too much nitrogen, especially prior to heading, may lead to too much green matter and a greater chance of getting stripe rust and mildew and other diseases. He said the fungus didn't die in the summer; it simply went dormant. He suggested eliminating the green bridge for stripe rust by getting rid of volunteers from the previous year if stripe rust was a problem. He also emphasized that there are variations in stripe rust races (fungus lines), and just like plant varieties, they change and adapt over time.
"Populations shift, varieties shift," Steve said. "That's something to really keep in mind. It's a beautiful thing, but it can be devastating too. These are very dynamic definitions. When we say a line is resistant, it means in that environment, in that year, with everything else going on, it didn't get the disease. We can get more complicated than that genetically, but it all depends on the population of the disease as well–and it's quite dynamic."
"Some of these older wheat lines like Red Fife or others can appear resistant over a year. For example, if you grew one of the Maris lines or Huntsmen or Widgeon or some other line, and it's resistant for a while, it may become susceptible as these races change. So the rust is a population as well, and it feeds on what's there. And these populations can shift over time so things can be resistant, lose their resistance, then the resistance can come back again."
In the end, you need to be on top of it, carefully choosing varieties and being aware that the stripe rust fungus is dynamic and always changing.
Genetic Engineering: Genetic engineering and GMO crops, particularly GMO wheat and GMO sugar beets, have been hot topics among farmers in western Oregon for some time. Several of the Bean and Grain Project farmers have been actively against it. That it came up in this meeting was no surprise.
What do you think of genetic engineering?
This was a good question for a man who teaches a class in the history and ethics of genetics. Steve Jones was trained in genetics at UC Davis. He spent several years as a wheat breeder for Washington State and is entirely aware of the negatives and positives of breeding for large scale industrial farming. His take is one based on many years of experience, many years of talking about the subject, and many years of listening to others talk on the subject. His own transition from breeding commodity wheats to breeding local and organic wheats says truck loads.
"I don't think GE is a good idea," he began. "The basis for genetic modification is ownership of the seed. So you genetically modify an organism, then you own it. You own that seed, and the farmer is leasing that seed from you instead of buying it. That's why I'm against it." Then he qualified himself saying, "I'm not against it. That's why I don't like it."
"There has been tremendous hype for GE that hasn't worked. We're going to end hunger or this or that–and it's not working. But to me, it falls back to the ownership issue. If I'm a grower, I want the same right that growers have had for 10,000 years. And that's to save some of the seed that I grew. To put it in perspective, in the dark ages, you could save your own seed. Okay. That's why I don't do GE. That's why my program doesn't do it. But I don't see it as harming what we do. I see it, in a weird way, as adding value immediately to grains that are not genetically modified."
There will be a growing amount of consumers who don't want GE. If you can keep it clean, it will have a premium value.
In the case of GE wheat, Steve said, "Wheat pollen won't go more than 100 feet or a 100 yards certainly. It's not a pollen thing. It's the infrastructure–mills and storage and transportation–and all sorts of other issues. In a way, I've given up the GE fight and want to offer alternatives. I'm not so worried about when it's going to come or how it's gong to come; I'm just interested in giving growers alternatives…If it's important to people, they've got to figure it out. Right! I've written on it. I've talked about it. I've been kicked in the head about it. It's a big issue and people have to figure it out."
"To me, it's no patents on life. That solves that one."
The Local Grains Movement: Over the last fifty years, as a result of industrial agriculture, the dynamics of the global market, and certainly other factors, all the regions that are not in the wheat belt have lost their capacity to grow and process grains. As said in the opening, Dr. Steve Jones has traveled all over the United States visiting areas like the Willamette Valley that are trying to return to growing local grains.
What regions are you aware of that are trying to recover their capacity to grow grains?
Steve answered with the quote at beginning of this article: Mendicino, Butte, and Humboldt counties in Northern California, the entire state of Maine, the entire state of Vermont, the area around Asheville, North Carolina, Alaska, Tempe, Arizona, the Willamette Valley, and the region around Mount Vernon, Washington where Steve's lab is located.
Steve added that these other regions were focused on grains, particularly wheat, and that only in the Willamette Valley had he seen the deliberate recovery or addition of dry-land beans, which he considered an excellent complement to the grains.
If growing wheat is the first piece of grain recovery, the second piece is processing. When regional farmers stopped growing grains years ago, the infrastructure that supported them also went away–the grain mills, the dry storage, the distribution networks, and in some areas the farm equipment, all gone. Because of high capitalization costs, this part of the puzzle is lagging behind the actual growing of the grains. Addressing this lost infrastructure has always been one of the presiding purposes of the Bean and Grain Project and was certainly part of the reason two new grain mills now exist in the southern Willamette Valley.
Have these other regions created distribution networks for their grains?
"No," was Steve's answer. "That's one of the difficulties of it—the lack of infrastructure–storage, drying, transportation. We've lost all of that in these regions, so that's part of the complication of bringing grain back–starting with the elevators. Ours is an Italian restaurant. The one out in Jefferson County is an Italian restaurant. The other ones were torn down to make cabinets for Seattle. So we've lost all levels of all of that, and it's a struggle for the growers who are now dealing directly with millers and bakers to come up with a cost for their product. What's the value of the grain? If it's not a commodity price, if it's not figured out in Kansas City, Chicago, or Minneapolis, what is it? That's true for growers, millers, and bakers in North Carolina, Vermont, Maine, California, Alaska, here, and in Washington. What's it worth a bushel? What's it worth a ton? (Harry MacCormack interjected, "What's it worth a pound?") What's it worth a pound? How's that work? That's the first step of complication. And it gets worse after that. What's the grain worth?"
And this has been a problem here. The small scale farmers of western Oregon can not compete price-wise with the large scale growers in eastern Oregon or in the Midwest. If a community or region wants self-reliance in grains, they must commit to buying local grains at the cost it takes to produce them.
The Social Hour: There was a pot luck dinner after the question and answer session, featuring potato-garbanzo soup, wheat berry chili, rye bread, Red Fife dinner rolls, Painted Mountain corn bread, polenta, a fabulous salad from Sunbow Farm, beer from Oakshire Brewing Company in Eugene donated by the Skinner City String Band, and many other dishes. The meal and libations made for a great opportunity for each farmer to talk with Steve one-on-one and to mingle with the other farmers and visitors at the meeting. The Bean and Grain Project always emphasizes the importance of the socializing aspect of the farmer meetings. The round table discussions are one part of the bean and grain forum, but the casual conversations among farmers after the meetings or even a day or week later at the seed store, coffee shop, or wherever is also an essential part of knowledge building.
Farm Tour: The following day, Dan Armstrong took Steve Jones to visit Sarah Kleeger, Andrew Still, and Cooper Boydston at Open Oak Farm, home of Adaptive Seeds. On a cold, wet, and beautiful morning, just south of Crawfordsville, Steve spent an hour and a half viewing and talking about the various grains currently in the ground at Open Oak. It made for an excellent exchange and a solid connection between Steve and Andrew Still, one of the areas most knowledgeable young farmers.
Community: Because the bean and grain farmers have been talking together for several years now, there is a high level of friendship and exchange within this group. In many cases, the farms are small, less than 30 acres, and often relatively new. In the case of the youngest farmers, the first few years on a farm can be extremely difficult with little or only modest return. The work can be hard, never-ending, and lonely. This means the friendships and the loosely-knit community of like-minded, organic bean and grain farmers provide an important emotional and farm equipment support system. This part of the Bean and Grain Project can not be overlooked or undervalued. Dr. Steve Jones provides the next level of community. By traveling around the country, talking with farmers new to growing grains, he gives each of the grain recovering regions a sense of connection with other regions doing the same. And again, this can not be overlooked or undervalued. Thank you, Steve.
See Ten Rivers Food Web report on this same meeting.
Special thanks is extended to The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, The Ten Rivers Food Web, Hummingbird Wholesale and the Evergreen Hill Fund of Oregon Community Foundation for their continued support of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. Also thanks to Vivian Schoung, Spencer Masterson, and Kathryn Damon-Dawson for taking photos at the meeting and making them available for this webpage.