Beans and grains have been a significant part of the south Willamette Valley farmers' and gardener's discussion for just about two years now. To some extent this discussion and increased experimentation with various bean and grain varieties began with the work of Harry MacCormack and the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project, but a little more digging reveals that a wide variety of grains and legumes have been grown in large and small plots in this valley for quite some time. In other words, beans and grains are quite viable here and this should come as no surprise. So why all this interest in beans and grains? And why now?
Cereal grains, most commonly wheat, maize, oats, barely, rice, rye, triticale, and millet, are grasses cultivated for the edible portion of their fruit seeds–the endocarp, germ, and bran. These grains make up more than half of what humans eat worldwide. And if you add the legumes, beans and grains represent something like 80 percent of all our foodstuffs–as well as being a widely-used animal feed.
Long since the beginning of agriculture, grains and beans have been noteworthy because of their capacity for long-term storage without any kind of special processing beyond drying. In contast, fresh vegetables and fruits remain viable for only so long. They can also be dried or canned or frozen for longer storage, but when it comes to ease in preparation, the length of time they can be stored, and their capacity to be transported in large quantities, beans and grains stand out. The fact that both are readily adapted to many meals and recipes just underlines their versatility and value; educated combinations of beans and grains can produce highly nutritious meals containing a wide variety of amino acids and complete proteins.
Another advantage to beans and grains is that many varieties can be dry-land grown. This means they can be productive seed bearing plants without irrigation or with only minimum watering. This is tremendously important in some parts of the world, but it is really a valuable asset wherever food is grown.
An additional positive for the legumes is their capacity to fix nitrogen. Most bean varieties can be grown in quite marginal soil, while at the same time improving that soil by adding nitrogen to it. This makes beans very useful in new gardens and a valuable way to replenish field crop soil through rotations.
Why beans and grains? Long storage, easy moving and transport, high nutrient value, cooking versality, modest water demands, and nitrogen fixing. But why are these qualities suddenly so valuable now?
In some major sense, experimentation with grains and dry-land beans in the Willamette Valley has been a response to concerns about peaking oil production, the unknowns of climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, and lost food security.
In the specific case of the Willamette Valley, growing beans and grains can be a common sense stategy for addressing all of these concerns. Currently the Willamette Valley's dominant field crop is grass seed. The economic downturn is changing that, but for the last 25 years, grass seed has been planted on more than half the valley's available cropland. With the increasing price of petroleum products and thus food freight costs, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we would be wise to grow more food crops locally, and grains are a very suitable substitute for grass seed. Though wheat will not grow everywhere grass seed does, wheat is arguably the best substitute, and as recenlty as 30 years ago, it was the dominant crop by acreage in the valley. Other grains–rye, barley, triticale, and oats–have also been significant crops in this valley and are certainly good edible alternatives to grass seed production.
We do not know precisely what climate change will bring, but snowpack depletion in the Cascade Mountain Range is surely one major concern that could seriously effect the region's water reserves. The capacity for both beans and grains to be grown with little or no irrigation speaks directly to this issue. Add that weather pattern changes associated with climate change may bring us less rain and again we see the value of being able to produce food–especially two hugely imporant food groups–with less of what we may need most, clean water.
From the point of view of sustainable practices, the idea of diversifying what is grown in the valley, particularly with the beans and grains, is a common sense alternative to grass seed monoculture–with the nice little bonus of creating greater food security by adding storable staples to the local food system. The educated rotation of grains and beans also addresses questions of sustainably; nitrogen fixing legumes rotated with all variety of grains is a good way to build greater soil health without chemcial inputs.
Long-term concerns about petroleum supplies, climate changes, sustainability, and food security has also inspired many to grab a hoe and move out into rural areas in an effort to become self-reliant. If these homestead farmers endeavor to truly live off the land, they will need more than canned tomatoes and potatoes to make it from fall to spring. The addition of grains and beans to any small farm is important simply because it means, especially if they are not meat eaters, that they can use those beans and grains as the foundation of their winter eating regime.
Thus, above and beyond the amenity of adding new good tasing and nutritious items to the local food store shelf or the backyard garden, this renewed interest in beans and grains connects directly with our uncertain future, the idea of adding to our food security with dry-stored commodities, and the capacity for individuals to create a self-reliant lifestyle and grow their own.