After what was a devastating year for Willamette Valley grass seed producers and a winter of watching the price of wheat, it's time for spring planting and to believe once again that this fertile valley can produce something that can be sold for more than it costs to grow it…
For the third consecutive spring, the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project hosted grower/bulk buyer meetings to discuss spring plantings of field crops that can be marketed locally. Because tens of thousands of acres will not be used for grass seed production this year and presumably next, these meetings are intended to be one way for valley growers to learn about alternatives to grass seed and to meet with local buyers who might be interested in purchasing those crops.
Like last year, there were two Bean and Grain Project meetings, one in Eugene on March 10th at the OSU Extension Service Auditorium and one in Tangent on March 11th at the Western Star Grange Hall. Both meetings had noticeably increased attendance over last year—always a good sign, and the discussions and meeting content had clearly grown more knowledgeable and experience-based. From what was said at these two meeting, we can expect a considerably wider exploration of field crops, on more acreage, and by a larger number of farmers than last year, and it will be accompanied by some preliminary ventures into processing infrastructure. This is all in line with the central purpose of the project—rebuilding the local food system through producing a wide variety of staple crops and creating the infrastructure to clean, process, and sell these staples here. Of course, spring is always full of hope, so the real measure of the growing season will come about six months from now, when we will see the results of this spring's planting.
Eugene: More than forty people attended the Eugene Bean and Grain Project meeting on a warm, sunny March afternoon. Approximately half that number were growers, and for a change in Eugene, those growers were relatively balanced between very small homestead farmers and larger producers. It is also worth adding that several potential infrastructure investors/financial advisors, all new to the group, attended the meeting.
The gathering, noted for informality and casual dress–meaning work clothes, assembled with remarkable punctuality around a rough rectangle of tables in the Extension Service Auditorium. Dan Armstrong opened the meeting with a short statement on the purpose of the meeting, which was to talk about field crops varieties that would be grown in the Willamette Valley this growing season, review the problems experienced in recent years with dry-land beans, and discuss advances in the rebuilding of food system infrastructure. Harry MacCormack followed with a short statement emphasizing the difference between selling grains and /or beans on the global market by the bushel and selling those same products locally by the pound. By removing several layers of middlemen and selling in smaller quantities, it is believed that local growers can counter the scale and low-cost labor advantages of non-regional growers and conceivably charge a price that covers the cost of production and a living wage for farm labor. Assuredly this is an ambitious goal.
MacCormack also added that more than anything right now, farming in the valley would involve close attention. In some cases, farmers will be planting crops they have never grown before or it might be their second year, and they will be using techniques and machinery that are also new to them. A sharp eye and thoughtful observation throughout the growing seasons will be much more critical than it has been for grass seed production.
After these brief opening remarks, the group, one by one clockwise around the rectangle of tables introduced themselves, saying who they were and why they were there. When the introductions were completed, Tom Hunton, onwer of Hunton Farm and SureCrop Farm Services, spoke for ten minutes about his farm and what he had been doing in the year since he'd first joined the bean and grain discussion. Hunton is a second generation south valley farmer with 2800 acres west of Junction City. He has been primarily a conventional grass seed producer for the past twenty-plus years, but has taken to the recent grass market decline with a unique positivism, a lot of good research and some well-educated common sense. It is worth noting that Tom's son, Jason, has recently returned to Oregon to share farming duties and has brought with him considerable organic farming experience.
Hunton's talk focused on two aspects of his work. First was his plan to transition 120 acres of his farm to organic food production. He will be trying five kinds of wheat, four or five kinds of dry-land beans, brown and white teff (he grew seven-acres of brown last year–see photo of injera bread made with his teff below), two varieties of lentils, and hull-less oats. This amounts to a fairly significant experiment for Hunton and is much like what we've seen from Stalford Seed Farms over the last five years. The intention is to determine how easily these various crops can be grown and if they can be marketed locally with a fair return. In no small sense, this exemplifies what the bean and grain project is trying to do valley-wide–explore the limits of farming in western Oregon.
Second and perhaps foremost in Hunton's talk was his elaboration on his experiences growing wheat. He grew and harvested 35-acres of conventional hard red spring wheat last summer and through the winter did a variety of protein tests and falling number evaluations on that wheat. Hunton, like many local farmers, has been told that high-protein, hard red wheat suitable for making high-quality bread could not be grown in the valley. Hunton's work last year and over the winter took one large step in proving this wrong, particularly regarding protein content, where 14 percent is the benchmark and generally considered difficult to attain in the Willamette Valley. Hunton's early protein tests, which he did himself, showed 12.9% protein content in his red wheat with a falling number of 340 (the benchmark is about 350). Later tests, conducted by Inspectorate America Corporation in Portland, showed a protein content of 13.9 percent and a falling number of 400. These numbers are excellent and exactly the kind of proof needed to prompt further experimentation with hard wheat in the valley. In February 2010, Hideaway Bakery in Eugene used some of Hunton's wheat to make bread. The bakery reported wonderful results, adding that it was some of the best wheat they had worked with.
Hunton's red wheat was grown using no-till practices and was his first attempt at hard wheat. As he said, "I probably did everything wrong," and yet he still got very convincing results. As said earlier, he will plant more wheat this spring, using five varieties, with a focus on protein content and disease resistance. Yield will be a secondary factor until these first priorities are properly explored. Next it will be important to see if these same kinds of numbers can be achieved through organic practices and by other farmers.
Following Hunton, Julie Tilt of Hummingbird Wholesale, who has been working closely with Hunton, spoke briefly from the distributor's perspective on the Bean and Grain Project. The core of Julie's message was similar to that of last spring and last fall. There is considerable demand for locally grown beans, grains, and edible seeds, and valley growers have not yet answered that demand. Last's year difficulties with dry-land beans were a major bump in the road, and Hummingbird is essentially waiting for the growers to work out the problems. While the Hummingbird model focuses on organic, they will market transitional and locally grown. With more growers involved this year, come fall, we should expect that Hummingbird will have a significant quantity of local beans and grains to sell. Julie also announced that Hummingbird had recently hired James Henderson as a sales coordinator and liaison to local farmers. Henderson attended the meeting and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 541-870-1722
After Julie Tilt spoke, the meeting was opened to a round-table discussion and the topic turned quickly to infrastructure. Nearly everything we grow needs some kind of cleaning, bagging, and/or processing. With talk of wheat, there is need for both local milling and storage. Two large growers, Hunton Farm in conjunction with Hummingbird and Stalford Seed Farms, said they were considering building small grain milling facilities. Mary Ann Jasper (email: email@example.com, phone: 541-491-1227), who oversees bean and grain sales for Stalford Seed Farms, said they were looking at both organic and gluten-free operations. Should these facilities come to being within the next year or two, they would be important assets for the local food system and another sign that, little by little, the work of the Bean and Grain Project is advancing.
Beans also need modest processing after they leave the field. Bean cleaning, polishing, and bagging are critical parts of delivering a consistent product to wholesalers or for direct sales. Stalford Seed Farms invested in a bean polisher two years ago and have the capacity to bag their own beans. Should this year's beans turn the corner on production, more bean cleaning and polishing capacity will be needed.
Growing dry-land beans in the valley has been more problematic than the wheat. Last year, weed pressure was a major issue with the beans and we anticipate better results this year for the experience and the variety of growers. But one other problem came up last year that did not get much attention because of the weeds: Is the season long enough and dry enough for dry-land beans to consistently have the time to dry in the field? While there have been innumerable examples of successful bean harvests (Al Dong in Elmira stands out) and sufficient in-field drying time, the size of the plots have been relatively small, less than five acres or in many cases less than one acre. Still on large acreage, beans do present a gamble–either trying an earlier planting or relying on a dry first half of September. Stalford Seed Farms did have a drying problem with their beans last year, and this must be considered an issue to closely watch this year.
For the most part, the dry-land beans need about 100 days to reach maturity and another three weeks to dry in the field, all depending on weather conditions. In the Willamette Valley, a bean planted on May 15th reaches maturity in the second half of August, meaning it will need a week or three of dry weather in September to dry in the field. Current valley weather trends far from guarantee this happening. While there will be some experimentation by Harry MacCormack, and perhaps others, with earlier planting dates, the other alternative for beans planted in the second half of May is to harvest the beans at the latest day possible, dry or not, and then pass them through a dryer to finish the process. There are some drying facilities in the valley, but further research must be done to establish their capacity for drying beans. This process would also add another cost to production. If, however, a grower or several growers have committed to beans and having on-farm or shared drying facilities, this may be an answer or at least a backup in case of early fall rain.
Regarding planting time, early returns suggest garbanzo beans can go in sooner than other varieties. The last week in April puts them right there, dried in the field by September 1. Another possibility is experimenting with shorter-season beans. Andrew Still of the Seed Ambassadors and Adaptive Seeds spoke convincingly (at the Tangent meeting) of 80 and 85-day bean varieties. These varieties merit further research and perhaps some local test plots.
With infrastructure, whether it be milling facilities, storage, or driers, capital investment is necessary. The Eugene meeting did include several potential investors that came simply to listen to the conversation and see if there was a way they could fit in. Little of this was discussed specifically at the meeting, but Mary Ann Jasper from Stalford Seed Farms emphasized that there were other ways to acquire capital, noting the concept of slow-money and the book by the same name. Milton Takei from the Eugene Growers Market suggested Shore Bank Pacific as a farm friendly loan source. Eugene Scott, the owner of Hummingbird Wholesale when it was called Honey Heaven, mentioned the existence of a low or zero-return landtrust/capital source that existed in the Willamette Valley during the 1980s by the name of "Arable." This was mostly individuals putting their money together so that it was available for things they wanted to see happen. The point is that there are many alternative investment apparatus out there and creative financing should not be neglected as the effort to rebuild our food system moves forward.
As the infrastructure discussion wound down, Tom Bowerman, then Dan Armstrong, reiterated the value of crop statistics–seed variety, time planted, acreage, harvest date, yield. To date, the farmers attending the Bean and Grain Project meetings have been reluctant or simply too busy to consistently share crop stats. This may be a privacy issue, which of course is respected, however, information gathering and the creation of knowledge is a primary part of the Bean and Grain Project and to date has been missing–except through the anecdotal exchange of information at the meetings. Very little in hard numbers was revealed at either the Eugene or Tangent meetings regarding acreage and varieties that will be planted this spring. It was clear, however, that all numbers–varieties, numbers of farmers, and acreage–for beans and grains will be up significantly this spring.
The meeting concluded with Tom Hunton announcing that he was considering hosting a tour of Hunton Farm during the summer so other growers and interested buyers could see how his crops were progressing. This tour, like the one last year at Stalford Seed Farms, will help widen the discussion and facilitate networking with a timely and fun social event.
Tangent: In contrast to the beautiful weather in Eugene on March 10, Tangent was the scene of strong wind and rain the following day. Welcome to Oregon Oregonians! The meeting at the Western Star Grange Hall, perhaps because of the weather, was the best attended Bean and Grain Project meeting yet in Tangent. More than thirty people were there, about half farmers, including two large grass seed producers that were new to the group. Several students and researchers were in attendance and again, as in Eugene, a few investors were present to see what opportunities were percolating.
The meeting began with opening statements by Harry MacCormack and Dan Armstrong. They repeated what they had said in Eugene. Introductions then proceeded around the table.
James Henderson, the new sales coordinator at Hummingbird Wholesale, gave a short talk about his position at Hummingbird. He was there as much to introduce himself to the farmers as repeat what Julie Tilt had said the day before in Eugene. Hummingbird is exploring a wide variety of locally grown field crops. They are focused on organic, but they are open to discussion about local, transitional, and sustainable crops also. James' primary message is that he is always open to talk with farmers and explore possibilities. Again he can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or called at 541-870-1722
Willow Coberly of Stalford Seed Farms, whose major success last year was organic hard red wheat, followed Henderson with a brief statement about her intention to build small grain mills for both organic grain milling and gluten-free milling. (Oats are one gluten free crop of interest.) It was also noted that once farmers move into processing of almost any kind USDA and/or FDA inspections are a likely issue.
Willow also emphasized that it is important for valley farmers and buyers to break from the traditional business model where neighbors, caught between dealers, are haggling for a nickel or a dime, as often could happen in the grass seed industry. The idea is to produce quality locally grown food in a way that benefits the entire community–that is, to produce food at a fair profit for farmers, give a living wage to farm workers, and also sell the product at an affordable price to consumers. If a certain amount of give and take isn't part of the mentality, we are simply "wal-martizing" the prices and the big guy will win that battle every time. The local movement must be about growers and buyers of all sizes working with an awareness for each other.
After Willow's comments, the meeting opened to round-table discussion. While there was some repetition of ideas expressed in Eugene, mostly around the growing of wheat and the concerns for beans, both weeds and drying time, new topics did arise. Dan Sundseth, a USDA farm agent, told the group that the USDA has low-interest loans (3.5-4%) available up to $500,000 for on-farm storage. Clint Lindsey of A2R Farm outside Corvallis announced that they now offer organic seed cleaning services. (A2R Farm can be contacted at email@example.com or 541-738-2546 Also see Clint's Blog to read about day to day progress on the transition of his conventional farm to organic.) Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds and the Seed Ambassadors said he and his partner Sarah Kleeger were beginning a bean and grain CSA at their new place outside Sweet Home. He also said that he'd recently bought a large, used seed-cleaner.
Krishna Khalsa, a key member of the Bean and Grain Project, said he was working with associates to form a 501(c)(5) to work with area farmers in a community partnership to produce beans, grains, and culinary herbs for Food for Lane County. This 501(c)(5) "tax exempt enterprise" would offer tax incentives (through the food bank) while also giving back to the community. The 501(c)(5) would pay seed costs; farmers would plant them; and the 501(c)(5) will train volunteers for harvesting and cleaning. The training will offer skilled experience that is otherwise unavailable. The harvest benefits community food banks, while the organization supports farmers with skilled and semi-skilled labor. The organization is also developing funding for used farm equipment, to refurbish (or salvage for parts) for cooperative use. Agreements have been made to purchase a two-unit food drying system (for installation in 60 foot semi-trailers for seasonal drying on farms or stationary sites), a potato harvester, and a combine that also shells and cleans dry beans. (Read PDF for more information).
Jason Bradford, a new resident to Oregon, has recently bought a 150-acre farm outside Corvallis as part of his Farmland LP strategy to buy and manage farmland for the purpose of transitioning it to organic. Harry MacCormack spoke at length about the potential of the soybean market, saying some 470,000 pounds of soy beans were used in the valley by local processors, making tofu, tempe, and other soy products. Soybeans have been grown in the valley, but success has been marginal. Michelle and Stan Armstrong (send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 503-710-8465 or 503-981-3521) are several years into an on-going soybean experiment in Woodburn, and Oregon State researcher Clint Shock (send email to email@example.com or call 208-739-2674 or 541-889-2174) continues to say he has varieties that need to be experimented with in this valley. MacCormack emphasized that there are soy products that can be made with less than optimal soybean protein levels and that soybeans should be explored further.
The meeting adjourned with Willow Coberly saying that Stalford Seed Farms intends to repeat the farm tour event they did last year. Including the Hunton Farm tour, this would make two tours during the summer and another excellent opportunity to network, learn, observe, and just have a plain old good time.
Summary: This is the third growing season for the Bean and Grain Project, fourth counting Harry MacCormack's first test plots. This is a relatively short period of time to judge real agricultural trends. Still it is very clear that the Bean and Grain Project meetings are steadily growing in size and sophistication, while at the same time drawing a younger demographic. The talks are always constructive and good will is prevalent. Perhaps, above all else, these talks are bringing growers of all variety and age together; organic growers, no-till practitioners, homestead farmers, grass seed producers, specialty farmers, and gardeners are taking part–not to mention the bulk buyers, AG students, USDA reps, Oregon Tilth reps, and other researchers that also attend. This kind of open discussion is incredibly important. The sense is that there is a base of knowledge that pertains to growing food in this valley and that it needs to be assembled and shared. Part of it was here before and part of it is transitional agriculture we are still learning.
1. The grass seed industry is in limbo for the time being. There is still much grass seed leftover from last year and probably some from the year before that. Approximately 100,000 fewer acres will be planted with grass seed in 2010-11. There will be more wheat, primarily soft winter wheat, in the valley this year, approaching 200,000 acres—simply because it is the best and easiest alternative to grass seed. The price of wheat has hovered around $5.00 a bushel on the global market during the last few months with a price in the range of $6.00 a bushel as a future for next year. This is cutting it pretty close to growing cost or not making it at all.
2. There should be a fair increase in local hard wheat and organic hard wheat this year. Several farmers at the meetings said they intended to plant hard wheat varieties this spring. A local market exists and exactly how much wheat it can handle is unknown. It is unlikely the limit will be fully tested this year. Some hand weeding may be necessary with the organic wheat.
3. Key issues for local hard wheat will be protein levels and disease resistance.
4. The dry-land bean experiment fell on bad times last year. This year there will be more total acreage, more varieties, and a larger number of growers cultivating beans than last year. Still there are no guarantees. The problems have been talked about over and over. The weeds will be first and foremost with the knowledge that some cultivation or weeding technique is necessary for organic. No-till may be another approach to the beans and fighting weeds. The drying of the beans at harvest will be another issue: Can earlier planting times help? When does the dew begin to become a problem? When do the fall rains begin? Can the beans be dry and off the ground by September 1? Are driers part of the equation?
5. The demand for locally grown field crops, particularly beans, is out there and has yet to be fully answered by valley growers.
6. The infrastructure discussion is slowly turning the corner. Small grain mills, bean polishers, organic seed cleaning facilities, these things are coming along. Two farms are talking about grain mills, organic and/or gluten-free.
7. The spring meeting attracted entrepreneurs and investors in numbers greater than one for the first time. The discussion of investment capital and creative banking has intensified.
8. Other crops that will be grown include teff, sorghum, oats, barely, flax, perhaps soybeans and millet.
9. The discovery, buying, and refurbishing of used or discarded farm machinery can be a cheaper way to go in the early stages of field crop transition. Some of this is happening now.
10. One potential grower/buyer connection that did not come up at the meetings but was suggested in feedback to this article is the online Food Hub put together by Ecotrust of Portland. The Food Hub website has been up since the beginning of the year and allows growers to post what they have available and buyers to post their needs. It is an excellent way for growers trying new field crops to explore the market. Click to visit Food Hub website.
As always, feedback to this webpage is welcome. If you attended either of the meetings, feel free to offer corrections or additions. In the end, the Bean and Grain Project meetings 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 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 thanks to Erik Silverberg and Carla Wise for photos from the meetings and to Tom Hunton for the photo of his farm and the injera.