"What we're thinking about is a huge paradigm shift. Part of that shift is what I've been involved with for thirty-five years, a shift from conventional agricultural methods, namely chemical methods, to organic methods, but that's only part of what we're talking about tonight. Another part of this shift involves working with established farmers here on the valley floor to start slowly shifting some of the fields that have been growing grass seed into growing food crops, particularly nutritionally dense staples like beans and grains." -Harry MacCormack, 1/23/2008.
In the three months since the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain farm tour at the end of July (2009) the Oregon grass seed industry has gone from bad to worse. Not surprisingly, many of the issues that caused the creation of the Bean and Grain Project two years ago have gained a new urgency and brought increased attention to the work and purpose of the project. Though the immediate financial pressures on the grass seed industry and more dramatically on the grass seed producers can not be described as anything but grim, the situation is bringing farmers together to talk about all facets of Willamette Valley agriculture and that is long overdue.
During the month of October, the Bean and Grain Project hosted two farmers' meetings, one in Eugene and one in Tangent, designed to review the past growing season, compare experiences, and discuss plans for the winter and spring planting season of 2009-10. Though these meetings were planned in the days following the July farm tour, the October meetings were fortuitously timed, as many farmers, particularly grass seed producers, were just then coming to grips with the clear tide change washing through the Willamette Valley. Nothing could go further toward underlining this in red, however, than the Oregon Department of Agriculture's sudden announcement of an October 23rd farmers' meeting in Albany, sponsored by the Oregon Grass Seed Bargaining Association, Oregon State University, the ODA, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The title of this meeting and presentation pretty much summed up the situation–"Survival Ideas for Farming in the Willamette Valley." (See Flyer.)
The Willamette Valley grass seed industry is under duress, and it's not really clear if this is transitory or long-term. In any case, grass seed acreage will necessarily decrease this year and next as a reaction to lost demand, and what to plant in that acreage, if anything, has become an extremely important discussion–and that was at least part of the focus of all three of these farmers' meeting that took place in October. Go to Summary
Tangent, Oregon, October 13: The first meeting took place on October 13th in the 130 year-old Western Star grange hall outside Tangent right in the heart of grass seed country. The afternoon was gray and cool with much needed rain in the forecast. The meeting was scheduled to start at three but the group gathered slowly in groups of twos and threes with many of the farmers coming in straight from the field.
Twenty-five people attended the meeting, thirteen of them farmers. Mainstays of the Bean and Grain project, Harry MacCormack, Krishna Khalsa, Dan Armstrong, Willow Coberly and Harry Stalford were there. Stephanie Paige from the ODA, Dan Sundseth from the USDA Farm Service, Andy Bennett from Oregon Tilth, Eric Miller from Living Earth Bakery in Corvallis, Dick Turanski from GloryBee Foods in Eugene, Shepard Smith from Soil Smith, and some students from Willamette University added to the mix of farmers that included seed producers Sheri Falk, David Goracke, and Mike Robinson. Friends and lots of new faces pulled up folding chairs and squeezed in around the table.
As said earlier, the meeting's original focus was reporting on the 2009 growing season, primarily experiences with beans and grains. With harvest all but done, the organic wheat planted in the spring at Stalford Seed Farms had been very successful, but their organic dry-land beans (pinto, garbanzo, black, and orca) had struggled badly, overtaken by weeds, even in some fields where herbicides were used. By harvest, three hundred acres were lost to weed pressure and were turned under. Harry MacCormack had similar problems with his beans, but another Corvallis-area farmer, Shaun Cade, described a positive experience with forty-five acres of organic dry-land beans and 15 acres of conventional. Though he did not get his beans in the ground until June (pintos, black, red, small white, and great northerns), he said all grew well, that he had no significant problem with weeds, and that his 17 acres of pinto beans did particularly well. He did mention, however, that he planted 25 acres of lentils and though the plants grew nicely, they produced empty pods.
The discussion of dry-land beans was meant to be one of the meetings' central topics, but it didn't go very far in the Tangent gathering. The grass seed growers were facing real and immediate problems. Last year's seed stock was still not completely sold and this year's harvest was waiting in limbo behind that. Prices were down, in some cases by more than fifty percent, and seed was selling at a loss. These growers needed a business plan for the winter and spring in order to get a bank loan and proceed with life–or not. And beans were still too much of an experiment at this point to take to the bank. Something more was needed.
The Bean and Grain conversation has been going on for two years, but this was the first time the difficult reality of a region leaning too heavily on a single crop led the discussion. Opinions expressed by the group about the future of the grass seed industry differed. Give it two years maybe three and the demand will return. That was Harry Stalford's take–and the optimistic side of things. Others felt the heydays have passed for good and that looking forward grass seed should only be considered a part of any large acreage management plan. The dynamics of sales, the payment schedule, current storage concerns, and the field burning ban, mixed in with the whim of the global market, had already disillusioned many growers; the lost demand just made it more immediate. Paid in thirty days wheat suddenly looked a whole lot easier to work with than seed contacts that can stretch payments out eighteen months or two years. There has to be another way. In a region as fertile, diverse, and productive as the Willamette Valley, there has to be another way.
The meeting's early discussion focused on conversion from seed production to food production, primarily wheat. Stalford Seed Farms' 2009 organic wheat crop was a bright spot, but the infrastructure for large-scale grain production is long out of service in the valley, and capital investment in its rebuilding would be necessary should wheat become the leading grass seed substitute. Some folks argued that by the time that infrastructure could be reestablished, grass seed demand would be back, but with the future essentially a black box, this forecast can be considered no better than a coin toss. There was also talk of returning to the old cannery model–wouldn't the addition of a couple, three canneries give some of that opened acreage new purpose? Again, this involved capital and time. Action resided somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Midway through the meeting the skies darkened and the rain arrived in a downpour. A list of the crops that might be grown as alternatives to the standard varieties of turf was compiled to the sound of huge rain drops pounding down on the old building's roof. Among those suggested were millet, rye, barley, flax, wheat, dry peas, clover, black beans, garbanzo beans, fava beans, pinto beans, soybeans, teff, oats, meadow foam, sunflowers, potatoes, pumpkin seed, yellow split peas, camellia, canola, buckwheat, and coriander.
One farmer had his doubts about the value of such a list. Yes, he said, all these can all be grown here and many already are. This is nothing we don't already know. We can sell those crops commercially but the pay back is too thin. That's why they aren't big crops already. That's why we've been growing grass seed.
The response to this was that these crops can become viable if sold locally, instead of on the global market. There's a premium price attached to local right now–and that premium picks up another few cents through reduced freight costs. But again, infrastructure is a limitation, and the demand for local is still quite modest and hardly enough for everyone to take advantage of.
In an exchange between Willow Coberly and Clint Lindsey, both grass seed producers, the question of organizing a group of local growers that would focus on selling locally first, globally second was batted around. It's a tough one. But what if there were local demand for handful of products. For example, say there was local demand for 500 acres of flax, 300 acres of garbanzo beans, and a 1000 for local organic wheat–all at premium prices with existing distributors. What would it mean to rotate those viable crops within a group of cooperating farmers. You stagger your rotation with your neighbors'. The year you don't grow flax, he does. The year he grows organic wheat, you don't. One year you split the garbanzo bean demand.
This would be no easy task, but in past years, it has seemed that the growers were pitted against each other by the dynamics of the global market. Farmers and seed dealers plotted out planting plans as though it were a matter of stealth. Instead, farmers could be better stewards of the land by working together to optimize management of the land and prioritizing production to local demand. What was not sold in the valley would go to the regional market, then the global. This may be too much to ask in terms of organization and cooperation, but there is a common sense to this that, arguably, trumps chasing the vagaries of the global market. Local demand could become a quantifiable and predictable entity to which contracts could be written.
The meeting adjourned with no particular conclusion, other than the value of diversification and a hope that supply and demand for local products could inspire venture capital for the needed infrastructure. Again that's a lot to ask for, but still the feeling of the meeting was positive. The discussion had been serious and there were repeated expressions of frustration, but the sense that there were others in the same predicament had to be reassuring to all present.
Eugene, Oregon, October 14: The second Bean and Grain meeting took place the day after the meeting in Tangent at the OSU Extension Service Auditorium on 13th Street in Eugene. As expected, this meeting was completely different than the first. Thirty-five people attended, more than half farmers, but with a majority of small organic farmers and homesteaders. There were two large-acreage grass seed farmers, Harry Stalford and Tom Hunton out of Junction City, and a conventional farmer, Herman Henke out of Coburg. There were no USDA representatives or anyone from the ODA in attendance.
The weather from the day before had cleared and it was a very pleasant afternoon in Eugene. Again a lot of people straggled in late wearing work clothes, but in this case, there was no table big enough for the entire group, so everyone took a chair and formed a big circle.
Per usual, it was a mix of friends and new faces, and the meeting began about three-fifteen with introductions. Harry MacCormack opened it up by giving a brief overview of the Bean and Grain Project and the reason for the current meeting. Intros moved on around the circle to Willow Coberly and Harry Stalford. Harry Stalford accented the weed problem he'd experienced in the cultivation of the dry-land beans. He expressed a great deal of frustration with the effort, but said he would like to try it one more time before saying it can't be done. Willow brought up the idea of a growers' organization that was talked about in Tangent, emphasizing that neighborly cooperation among farmers made more sense than angling for pennies on the pound with your neighbor with a grass seed dealer strategically positioned in between.
Julie Tilt from Hummingbird Wholesale introduced herself and spoke of Alex Deck's success with three acres of flax outside Junction City. Herman Henke said he'd been experimenting with soft white wheat. Lynne Fessenden from the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, Paul Atkins of Laughing Stock Farm, the introductions proceeded steadily around the circle. Al Dong, sitting beside Paul Atkins, was next. He was a black bean grower from the Elmira area west of Eugene. He'd sold black beans to Hummingbird Wholesale for a number of years, and Julie Tilt had asked him several times before to attend the Bean and Grain Project meetings. He tended to be like most farmers and really wasn't all that excited about attending any kind of meeting in town, but he came this day, well aware of the weed problems, and it proved providential.
Al Dong is an older man of Chinese heritage. Like all the farmers, he was wearing work clothes and looked like a man who'd done some hard work in his life and probably some of it earlier that day. He spoke with a slight accent and a halting phrasing that mixed dry humor with the poignancy of an elder's wisdom. He began by saying he'd grown dry-land beans in Elmira for 18 years. (This was notable in itself, as Elmira is cooler and wetter than the valley floor, and not nearly as well-suited for dry-land beans as the other places folks have been experimenting with them.) He said he had struggled badly with the weeds for ten years himself and, finally, for five years now, he had a system that worked. He also added that he had written it down and posted it online for anyone who was interested. (See document.) Almost as one, folks sat up and leaned in a little closer to listen.
Al Dong then began a step by step description of his technique, essentially a series of cultivations, using a variety of tines and discs, and a specific day to day timing. Because this topic had been a hot topic already for several months with no real answer, the entire room literally seemed to stop and hold spellbound on his every word. Weeds and the production of dry-land beans—how do you do it without the chemicals? Or without hours of hand weeding? Al Dong laid it out. In a farmer kind of way, with no big words, and lots of pregnant pauses, it was quite beautiful–spoken jazz, as Krishna Khalsa might say.
Dong spoke for more than half an hour and when he finished and had answered a peppering of questions, it was already after four o'clock. But the entire time, the members of the circle were transfixed—like everyone was sitting around a campfire and someone that no one really knew suddenly launched into a thrilling and suspenseful ghost story.
(It is worth noting that in a phone conversation that took place three weeks after this meeting, Shaun Cade, who attended the Tangent meeting and spoke of his positive experience with beans, described a process very similar to Al Dong's for minimizing weeds. He cultivated his plots two weeks prior to planting, then cultivated again a day before planting. After the beans came up, on a whim, he had his son do some shallow harrowing with an ATV to knock down the early weeds. Like Dong, Cade had very little weed problems with his dry-land beans.)
Jeff Broadie of Lonesome Whistle Farm followed Al Dong. He told of his experience with heirloom beans and brought samples of five varieties. Matt Goracke, brother of David Goracke who attended the Tangent meeting, was next in the circle of introductions. He said we was interested in growing wheat and wanted to know what kind of demand existed for locally grown grains.
Charlie Tilt of Hummingbird Wholesale was next and addressed this question from the perspective of a bulk buyer and wholesale distributor. Hummingbird has been as strong an advocate for local as any buyer in the area, and Charlie didn't mince words. Through the margin is slim, he was all for the local beans and grains, but still he needed product. He had folks lined up to sell to, but production was not keeping up with the talk; there had yet to be a deep sounding of local demand, especially in the crops the Bean and Grain Project was promoting. He and his wife Julie had been part of the bean and grain conversation since the beginning and were well aware of all that had gone on in the past two years. Clear and clean, Charlie repeated what he'd said the year before; he was still actively seeking local growers and a consistent product. In many ways, this was as important a piece of information as was Al Dong's recipe for fighting weeds.
A few more seats around the circle was Tom Hunton. Tom is a highly respected grass seed producer who's farmed his whole life in the valley. He works a couple thousand acres and owns SureCrop Farm Services outside Junction City. He's been attending the Bean and Grain Project meetings since the beginning of the year and seems to have known all along that diversification was the way of the future. He grew 35 acres of no-till red wheat this last spring. Said he'd irrigated it three times and gotten 65 bushels an acre with a protein level of 13 percent. He also grew an experimental field of teff for OSU. He'd irrigated it four or five times during the summer and gotten about 1000 pounds of clean seed per acre. He was currently amid conversations with Charlie Tilt to sell the teff to Hummingbird Wholesale. This was exactly the kind of connection the project was trying to make.
Hunton, who revealed a vast wealth of knowledge and a real insight into the changes ahead, said he planned to try transitioning into organic beans in the next year and that he would continue with the no-till wheat, the teff, and perhaps some yellow split peas.
It took the entire two-hour meeting to go around the circle of thirty-five people with introductions. Krishna Khalsa reaffirmed the need for community organizing and neighborhood storage. Nick Routledge, Sarah Klusen, and Andrew Still of the Seed Ambassadors sat a few seats further around the circle. Andrew said he and Sarah would soon begin a bean and grain CSA. He described rye as the best grain of all. No problems, ever, at all, he said. Shepard Smith was last to speak. He added that barley was another very viable crop with the valuable property of lowering cholesterol.
The Eugene meeting was significant for the positive nature of the discussion and the energy of those present. The surprise appearance of Al Dong made the day, and his message was underlined by Charlie Tilt's reminder–we still haven't tested local demand.
Yes, the feel of the meeting in Eugene was quite different than the meeting in Tangent. The shadow of the grass seed industry downturn was simply not as deep or dark there in the Extension Service auditorium. More importantly, however, there was the sense of adventure in the group, a sense that the bean and grain movement was an important and pioneering effort, something new and different as relocalizing a food system through the upwelling of an informed urban and rural community. What Harry MacCormack said just before the meeting adjourned stands out: "People all around the United States watch what's going on in this valley. It happened before with the organic movement. It's happening again with the beans and grain."
Albany, Oregon, October 23: Eight days after the Bean and Grain Project meeting in Eugene, the Oregon Seed Bargaining Association, OSU, the ODA, and the USDA held their meeting in Albany at the Linn County Fair and Expo Center. ( See Albany meeting program.) Described on the flyer as a "workshop to encourage interaction between growers, researchers, federal and state agencies, and market buyers about survival ideas for grass seed growers," this was a six-hour affair with lunch for $10.
The morning began, long before daylight, with a hard steady rain. It was still raining when the doors to the Expo Center opened at 9:00 am–with the sure understanding that this was great weather for getting farmers indoors. True to form, the meeting room filled to spilling over, and they pushed back a sliding partition to enlarge the gathering space. Two hundred and fifty or more were in attendance. Maybe half of those folks were farmers. There were also a lot of seed dealers, mixed in with a bevy of state officials, a few academics, and others from the AG industry.
What was interesting about this meeting was its sense of urgency. It was organized very quickly as a clear and determined effort to help farmers answer questions about the upcoming growing season–and beyond. The meeting title, "Survivial Ideas for Farming in the Willamette Valley," said it all. The entire farm administration service was acknowledging the desperate state of the grass seed industry, its impact on the valley, and the duress that many farmers were suffering. It was down to bare bones survival for many of the farmers, and if the grass seed market were down for 18 months or more as predicted, the next bank loan would be based on what?...
The meeting began with a power point presentation entitled "The Oregon Grass Seed Industry: A Reality Check," given by Matt Herb, President of the Oregon Seed Trade Organization, Vice President of the Oregon Seed Council, and an active Willamette Valley seed dealer. Herb gave an overview of the industry's current status; the economic turndown, fewer housing starts, changing golf course seeding practices, declining beef and dairy cow numbers, and other issues have drastically reduced grass seed demand–to the point that seed stocks are essentially backed up with anywhere from 18 months to two and a half years of surplus, depending on the seed variety. Herb forecast grass seed acreage to drop by more than 100,000 acres by 2010. Considering long-term projections for the price of fossil fuel and the impact that will have on grass seed demand, this projection, as unsettling as it is, might be judged optimistic.
Herb ended his presentation with nine suggestions for struggling farmers: find alternative crops; reduce grass seed acreage; reduce inputs; reduce labor; be pro-active with pesticide and water use–in other words cut back, cut back, cut back; explore State and Federal program options; develop a cropping plan; develop a marketing plan—and think outside the box—"You're an agriculturist," Herb reminded, "not just a grass seed farmer;" and "Trust the industry," he said as he concluded.
If mutterings in the crowd mean anything, this last suggestion was taken with a large grain of salt. A better statement would have been to "trust the land—listen to it, work with it."
Matt Herb was followed by Jim Julian, an OSU Faculty Research Assistant. In light of the prevailing theme to diversify crops and Herb's projection that 100,000 acres of grass seed will be opening up to something new or laid fallow, Julian offered an informative overview of other successful crops, particularly specialty crops that are grown in the Willamette Valley. (See crop list and planting data.) Starting at the top in terms of total gross annual revenue were Christmas trees, onions, pears, wine grapes, cherries, hazelnuts, blueberries, apples, sweet corn, snap peas, vegetables in general, and other berries. With each of these crops, he gave a three year history for gross sales and average return per acre. He addressed grains separately, listing barley, oats, wheat, corn, and hay, accenting their return per acre either as food crops or livestock feed. (Another high dollar specialty, mixed landscape nurseries, was not mentioned because, like grass seed, the economic turndown has hit that industry also.)
Julian did not talk about organic production as an option for any of these or how organic or even transitional crops might be of more value. This was a recurring them throughout the day. Organic production was never more than as an aside, presumably labor concerns are an overriding factor. (Should unemployment reach 20% and diesel tops $5 or $6 a gallon, however, there will be growing impetus to rethink this analysis.)
Julian concluded his talk with a list of conversion factors. Clearly, if a grass seed grower is going to convert any of his acreage to something different, it involves issues like years until the first successful harvest, years to full production, the rotation life of the crop, and the capital necessary to implement the change. With the exception of the grains like wheat and oats which are already part of many farmers' rotations, Julian said most crops involved a 3 to 5 year conversion period plus a capital investment. For a farmer already backlogged with seed inventory and needing to come up with a business plan for a bank loan yesterday, this was rather sobering information.
Stan Armstrong and his daughter Michelle followed Julian. They were the only farmers in the six-hour program to speak at length. The Armstrongs told the story of their two-year experiment with soybeans, saying soybeans might be another crop to be added to the list of alternatives. They farm just north of Salem and have had reasonable success with soybeans grown for oil. They produced 53 bushels per acre in their first year and 69 the second.
Dave Lockwood of Corvallis Feed and Seed also spoke to alternative crops. He has experimented with small test plots for several years and offered soybeans, vetch, Greek hay, fava beans, awar, spring peas, camelina, flax, safflower, and switch grass as possibilities.
Tomas Endicott of Willamette Biomass was next. Willamette Biomass does organic and conventional seed crushing for oil and livestock meal in Rickreal, Oregon. Endicott is actively looking for growers of canola, camelina, and soybeans, and can process, at this point, 80 million pounds of seed per year. Though the growing of canola is not allowed in the center of the valley, Endicott emphasized that oil seed production of some variety is something local farmers should seriously explore.
Roeland Kapsenberg of Cal/West Seeds spoke to the possibility of growing alfalfa, sudan grass, or safflower, with an emphasis on the latter. Safflower seeds can be used to make cooking oil, bio-diesel, or as birdseed. The growing season is 140 days, with harvest in mid-September, producing a yield of 1000 pounds per acre without irrigation and 2000 pounds per acre with.
While the state of the grass seed market and alternative crops were the focus of the presentation's morning session, the afternoon session focused on government programs, such as loans, business credits, and crop insurance. The State Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Lynn Voigt, addressed short-term help through supplemental loans from the USDA, bio-mass crop assistance commodity loans, and other strategies for bridging funds from one growing season to the next.
Kirk Jarvie of the ODA Department of State Lands detailed the process for earning wetland mitigation credits. This is a way for a farmer to convert some of his or her land to wetlands, as an environmental action, and earn marketable credits for doing so. These credits, based on the type of land converted and the amount of acreage, can then be sold to developers who are interested in building on existing wetlands. This program endeavors to balance wetlands lost to development with wetlands gained by restoration. Jarvie emphasized that while this process could be quite profitable, approximately $84,000 per acre of credit, the paper work can take in excess of one year, involves quite a lot of bureaucratic hoop jumping, and often much frustration. Even though this was Jarvie's area of work, he did not recommend it very highly because of the amount of time and paperwork involved–unless, he qualified, the farmer is doing this because he truly believes in the value of the wetland either for hunting purposes or ecological reasons–not because he's simply looking for another source of income.
Stephanie Page, the Renewable Energy Specialist at the ODA, was the last speaker of the day. She provided sound advice for energy savings (which will surely become more and more important with time) through things as diverse as variable-speed drives for irrigation pumps and electronic moisture control sensors to reduced tillage and no-till practices. She also noted that there were many business energy credits available for on-farm renewable energy applications, including solar, wind, small-hydro, solar thermal, and self-processed bio-fuels.
In the end, the Albany event offered a lot of good information covering a wide variety of topics. Diversity, alternative crops, and government programs were at the core of the presentation, and in the words of Lisa Hanson, Deputy Director of the ODA, as quoted in the Capital Press, the intention of this meeting was not to provide immediate answers and solutions, but to "take this as the beginning of a conversation that is ongoing." And this was surely an important point, unfortunately, due to the length of the presentation and the fact that the question and answer period was left to the very end of the meeting, when more than half of those in attendance were no longer there, the conversation was primarily one-sided, the seed industry and the government agencies talking to the farmers. Should there be a follow-up meeting, it should include more feedback from the farmers, more small workshops and round tables, acknowledgement that organic practices are a viable alternative, an overview of the existing food system and the potential for local processing and job creation, and a longer-term look at the situation in general. Yes, the current grass seed industry dilemma was the impetus and focus behind the Albany meeting, but that is just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are still some extremely serious questions to address concerning what Willamette Valley agriculture will look like in ten or more years.
Summary: Clearly it is impossible to present every idea that was discussed in what was ten hours of farm meetings with as many as one hundred different speakers in some form less than a book. It is, however, the intent of this report to summarize and synthesize the material discussed in all three meetings as best possible so that individual farmers, administrators, bulk buyers, and policy makers can begin to address the situation with some kind of unified perspective.
Each of these three meeting was different in its own way and each offered worthwhile information for anyone farming in the Willamette Valley, particularly grass seed producers. It is worth underlining, however, that while the current grass seed situation is acting as a catalyst, as Lisa Hanson said, to begin "the conversation," what needs to be addressed is really much larger than the grass seed crisis.
Above and beyond initiating large-acre field trials with organic grains and dry-land beans, opening and maintaining the discussion is arguably one of the most important things the Bean and Grain Project has accomplished in its two years of activity. Harry MacCormack, more than anyone else, has enabled and directed several wide-ranging and frank roundtable discussions with a good mix of farmers–grass seed producers, conventional farmers, small organic farmers, and homestead farmers, dating back to April of 2008. While the focus for the Bean and Grain Project has been growing organic grains and dry-land beans, the backdrop has always included assessing infrastructure deficiencies, addressing gaps in the local food system, promoting sustainable practices, prompting consumer and community participation, involving local bulk buyers, gathering knowledge of all kinds about Willamette Valley farming, and sharing the knowledge that is gathered.
This on-going discussion, roundtable talks between conventional and organic farmers, is in itself important from several perspectives—economic, environmental, and administrative–because it's all on the table now. With the rising cost of fuel, no-till farming has become more common. Organic does not seem as radical as it once did. Sustainability is valued, and the ODA and the USDA are also taking part in the discussion. And this can't be undervalued, because at bottom, as said before, this is a discussion about the long-term future of Willamette Valley agriculture, not any single industry simply pushing for more acreage.
Discussion: The immediate concern is the grass seed industry. Some kind of temporary and/or long-term transition is screaming like an angry bill collector for attention. In the short-term, an estimated 100,000 acres of farmland will be opening to grass seed alternatives or left fallow. What those alternatives are and how to make the conversion in a timely fashion is foremost on the growers mind.
Between the three meetings, a long list of alternative crops either once grown here, still grown here, or that could potentially be grown here were discussed. (They are listed in the reports for each meeting.) In some cases, like the production of wheat, which, as reported in the November 13th editon of the Capital Press, is likely to be the grass seed producer's first choice as an alternative, critical pieces of infrastructure, particularly storage, are missing and must be addressed as soon as possible. In some cases, like the conversion to specialty crops, 3 to 5 years and capital are necessary. In some cases, particularly for a wide variety of oil seeds and edible seeds, viable seed processing infrastructure already exists; it is also suffering from the grass seed downturn and is currently looking for new applications. In some cases, we are talking about reverting back to an earlier Willamette Valley model, an increased number of local fruit and vegetable processing operations and tying those processors to local buyers. (There were innumerable canneries up and down the Willamette Valley at one time. More than fifteen in Salem alone. In fact, in the 1950s, the south valley was the largest canning area in the world! Surely there is potential for a significant increase in fruit and vegetables acreage if a few canneries are built.)
One alternative crop that was not discussed at any of the meetings is hemp. Hemp is a very valid replacement for grass seed, especially in the wetter soils. It also has the valuable capacity to absorb heavy metals from the soil and could spawn several local cottage industries above and beyond seed production. It is legal to grow hemp in Oregon and several other states, but the ODA will not issue permits without permission from the federal government which lists growing hemp as illegal. This little inconsistency represents a very good issue for both the ODA and local farm agents to pursue with the federal government. Reason must eventually overtake a sadly distorted 80 year-old myth about hemp production.
Thus there are alternatives out there. Some better than others. Some tractor ready, most not. And in some cases, it's a matter of infrastructure that would take as much time to get in place as the conversion from one crop to another—3 to 5 years—or a presumed grass seed industry recovery. And this is where the argument widens beyond the immediate concerns of the grass seed growers and pulls in the entire valley populace and its assortment of growers.
We are looking at a very uncertain future. To some extent the future is always uncertain, but right now Oregon's economy is in trouble and unemployment numbers are reaching for record highs. Despite recent news that the national economy grew at a meaningful rate for the first time in a year, it is not really happening in Oregon. And any economic forecast for this region has to be conservative because no matter what might come down nationally or globally, recovery is likely to be slower here. Add the fact that oil production has or soon will peak, and it must be understood that the price of petroleum will act as a governor for all economic activity, especially agricultural, for quite some time.
To put it more bluntly, we can only expect fuel prices to rise and while that affects everybody, it affects agriculture and farming even more. Soil inputs, farm machinery fuel, freight costs, processing, even packaging, the entire foundation of conventional farming rests on the price of petroleum. With that in mind, and a quick glance over the shoulder at the question mark of climate change, one of the smartest things we could do is address gaps in local food storage and processing infrastructure and rebuild our food system so that everything we eat doesn't have to be shipped 1500 miles or more just to get here–especially when we can grow and process and package and sell quite a bit of those food products right here. In this regard, the opportunity is huge and as yet untested.
In terms of gross food sales and market share, a back of the napkin calculation proves provocative to say the least:
On average, grass seed grosses about $500 million per year in the Willamette Valley. That number is down this year. A worst case scenario might drop that to $250 million annually. The question is—could we make up that much lost income through producing food instead and selling it locally?
If the average family (2.5 people) spends $5000 per year on food (this is a very low-ball estimate, nationally the number is in excess of $6000), and there are 1 million families living in Portland and the rest of Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, then approximately $5 billion is spent on food each year in western Oregon and Portland. One accepted estimate says that in excess of 95 percent of that food is imported, meaning western Oregonians are eating less than five percent locally grown products. After subtracting for local food services, something like ninety percent of that $5 billion ($4.5 billion) is sent out of the region to food producers or processors in other parts of the United States or the world. This should start bells ringing!
If the populace's locally-produced food consumption were to double from five percent to ten percent, we could conceivably recapture almost all that lost $250 million of grass seed income. Should we build a few canneries, rejuvenate the grain infrastructure, and push that ten percent up to twenty percent local food consumption, we're talking about a market share worth nearly a billion dollar in gross proceeds.
Given it may take three to five years for the grass seed industry to reach equilibrium—if it does at all, doesn't it make a lot of sense to use those three to five years focusing on the conversion to food production and rebuilding our local food system? You'd get greater crop diversity, fewer middle men, shorter freight routes, a surge of jobs in the food processing sector, a decoupling from the whims of the global market, and increased food security.
In the end, one might argue this all boils down to one very basic question: Should the global market dictate the way the land is managed or should the land as a local foodshed dictate the shape of the market? Since World War II, an expanding market and a variety of government subsidies have been the central determinants for what is planted. Perhaps, as we encounter increasing fuel prices, real environmental concerns, and a stagnating local economy, it will make sense to prioritize production for the local foodshed.
The words of Harry MacCormack can be used to emphasize this concluding point:
"We're moving, and every body knows this—we're moving out of the petroleum age. At the moment it's kind of a slow movement, but at any point it could be a much more rapid movement, and this leads to the biggest part of the shift for all of us in this room to start thinking about. That is, instead of growing food for export, we start growing for the area right here, and then if we grow enough, we starting thinking about sending it to Portland or Seattle, and after that we start thinking about sending it out to the rest of the world. And that's a huge, huge shift when we've been hooked into this global economy thing for what twenty years now that's been so dependent on cheap oil–and that's changing right now as I speak." - Harry MacCormack, 1/23/2008
"[What this] means [is] that consumers have to learn, with farmers who are growing with them, to generate a system that includes storage, local processing, and a systematic demand cycle which farmers can count on, year after year. This means that anyone who wants beans must be totally involved in the process. As time goes on, and climate changes and fuel expenses continue to stress the food system as it now exists, it means that those who are completely involved in decision making and in financing will be those who get local foods." -Harry MacCormack, 10/15/2009
Feedback from readers of this webpage is welcome–that can be additions, corrections, or ideas. The Bean and Grain Project is also interested in any relevant crops stats growers are willing to share–crop, farm practice (organic, conventional, transitional), acreage, yield. Email feedback
Special thanks is extended to The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and The Ten Rivers Food Web and Hummingbird Wholesale for their continued support of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. Also many thanks to Erik Silverberg for his five photos from the Bean and Grain meetings and Tom Hunton for his windrowing teff photo.