On the 25th of August, 2010, Mud City Press had the opportunity to go out to Open Oak Farm and talk with Sarah Kleeger, Andrew Still, and Cooper Boydston about their farm. The three of them are equal partners in this thirty-acre tract of land which they lease and operate as a bean and grain CSA. Andrew and Sarah are also founding members of the Seed Ambassadors Project, and they will produce seed at Open Oak Farm for their seed company Adaptive Seeds. Below is the transcript from the wide-ranging and remarkably illuminating conversation that took place in August. (See portion of interview as video clip.)
Mud City Press: We're at Open Oak Farm, just a couple miles south of Crawfordsville, Oregon in the Willamette Valley. We're here to speak to Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger and Cooper Boydston, who are equal partners in this first-year farm. Sarah, could you give us a brief description of your farm?
Sarah Kleeger: The farm is thirty acres. About twenty of it is tillable. We are growing approximately five acres of beans and grains this year. The farm is also home to Adaptive Seeds which is Andrew's and my seed company, where we specialize in northwest appropriate open-pollinated vegetable seeds.
MCP: What exactly are you growing here? We've walked around a little bit, and it looks like there are maybe two hundred different plants in pots or trays or in the ground.
Cooper Boydston: Way more than two hundred.
MCP: Many hundred then is more accurate. So part of the farm is a CSA–a bean and grain CSA–and part is a seed company. Can you give us an overview of what you're growing and maybe how that fits into your farming plan?
Andrew Still: The front of the property, where we are now and where the greenhouse is, is probably about two acres. It's mostly seed gardens. Lots of varieties and trials and grow-outs for different seed. And some of it's grains and beans as well–all planted inside the deer fence that you see around the borders of this part of the property. It was a really wet spring, and we didn't plant all that we planned, but the seed garden got in pretty well. On the other side of the creek, at the back of the property, where we have much more ground, is where the large plots of grains and beans are planted. As I said, because of the wet weather, we didn't get as much planted back there as we hoped, so we decided to plant about an acre of winter vegetables. Meaning the CSA this year is going to be a grains and beans and winter vegetable CSA, with lots of roots and cabbages and leafy greens and things than can usually over-winter here or store well through winter. So that's the two big zones of what we've got going.
MCP: What would one of your CSA subscribers get?
CB: As Andrew said, our original plan was to do a bean and grain CSA. And because we just started here in October, and it was a really wet spring, we didn't till up nearly as much ground as we thought we would. So we planted about five acres of grains–rye, winter wheat and hard red spring wheat, oats, and hulless barley. But we got less than an acre of beans in, and the deer ended up eating half of them, just everything, forcing us to put up an electric fence around the back part of the property. What we had hoped would be about eighteen acres is only five this year. So the CSA will include some grains and beans but probably mostly winter vegetables–parsnips, beets, carrots, turnips, kale, collards, chard, and rutabagas.
SK: The CSA has three options at this point. There's a large and a small winter produce share which will have vegetables, like Cooper mentioned, and they will be augmented each week or every other week by one of the five or six grains that we're growing. We also have a bulk-share option that's grains only–approximately a three-month supply. It's whole grains only, so it's at a slightly reduced price per pound. We're also going to be milling some of the grain for the weekly boxes, so they'll have fresh milled flour along with whole grains. Meaning the bulk-share is more for people who want to sprout their grains or that have their own mill or that want to have sort of an emergency food stash ... in the garage ... or whatever.
MCP: So why would it be necessary to have a bean and grain CSA? Couldn't we be growing these things in our backyards?
CB: The beans and grains, the grains especially, are really good for extensive farming, as opposed to intensive farming. It works really well to plant larger acreage with them. That way it's really low input and not really that much labor–compared to the vegetables and others things you can grow in your backyard. I would encourage people to grow grains in their backyard, sure, but it seems you do need a certain size to really make it worth while.
AS: For example, a 200-foot by 8-foot bed produced close to 100 pounds of wheat for us this year, and we just hand-scythed and ran it through the combine. The other day we tried to do our rye, just to get five pounds for the wheat fleet. Cooper scythed it down, and I tried to shove it through the wood chipper to get it to thresh, and we ended up getting just five pounds of rye.
SK: But it took five human hours to process 5 pounds of rye that way.
AS: You can make your own bread pretty easily and you can grow your own wheat pretty easily. But it's a lot of labor if you're doing it on a small scale. If you have a machine to do it or a few specialized tools, it can be a lot more reasonable for three folks to farm thirty acres with grains and beans than it would be to have three folks farming thirty acres of vegetables. That's another reason we decided to do this. We could probably get all the work done with just three folks.
MCP: So it's actually the harvesting and the threshing and the cleaning that makes it hard for backyard grain growers?
CB: Yes and no. It's tricky but it's not impossible, and we're still experimenting with different methods. As Andrew was saying, we used this little wood chipper and it just wasn't set up right, but I think if it was, you could probably thresh a fair amount that way with minimum trouble.
AS: You scythe up a few swaths, then gather them up into little bundles and stick them into the wood chipper, then pour what you get from that in front of a fan. After that you can grind it into flour and make some bread. So with just a little garden bed, you could make several loaves of bread, and if you knew what you were doing and had just a little bit of practice, it wouldn't be so hard.
MCP: Most of us are familiar with wheat. Maybe we haven't threshed it before. Maybe we haven't even ground it before. But what are the other grains that you will give people in your CSA? You mentioned rye. Tell me a little about the specific grains you're going to produce–maybe not this year but down the line–and how people might use them. (See this portion of interview as video.)
SK: We have more hard red spring wheat than anything else at this point which is really good for breads. We have the rye which is good to add to breads or for rye bread, and we've also succeeded in cooking it like rice, although it takes a bit longer. We have hulless barley, which is great in soups, and hulless oats, which are good rolled for breakfast. And we are doing a polenta corn for cornmeal.
AS: We also have buckwheat. Buckwheat's really only edible if you grind it and then sift out the hulls. The hulls are really tough. You can make pancakes and stuff with buckwheat flour. We also have some decent amounts of soft white wheat which is what most farmers grow around here because it's really high yielding and easy to grow, but it doesn't rise very well, so you can only make flatbreads and noodles and such with that. But it's really good food and tastes great. Next year we're hoping to do teff and amaranth and quinoa and millet if we can figure out how to hull it, and some farro, emmer, maybe even spelt–and sorghum. Most sorghum is really late to mature, but we have a couple varieties of sorghum that look promising and might mature well here. The corn is exciting because it's a dent corn. We grow several varieties that we're crossing to make a population that we can grind. It's very flinty and floury, but we can sift the course meal out of it and have a powdery flour just through the simple sifting process. So we'll have two products. One for corn cake and one for corn bread or corn tortillas or polenta.
MCP: When we started, Sarah mentioned that you are also a seed company–Adaptive Seeds. Tell me about that and how it fits into the philosophy of the farm.
SK: Yes, Adaptive Seeds is our seed company. This is our second year. Our 2010 catalog has something like 200 varieties in it. A whole lot of tomatoes and an increasing amount of brassicas and root crops and staple crops. A lot of the seeds we have came from a trip we took to Europe a few years ago and some subsequent traveling and collecting missions to Transylvania and Thailand. We have about a thousand varieties of seeds and a lot of them are really unique for this country, so we're growing these varieties out and evaluating them for suitability to our climate and growing conditions, as well as for flavor and vigor. We're really excited about the beans we have. We've been growing them for a few years now. When we decided we were going to grow beans on this farm, we started shopping for bean seed and found that aside from the main varieties, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, there were only about twenty varieties of heritage dry bean seeds available in the U. S. in packages larger than the seed packet size for gardeners. Right now, we have about 60 varieties of dry beans and we're currently evaluating them for short season growing–so they can dry down in this climate. And we're really excited about not only adding those to our seed catalog but also adding them to people's diets through the farm. Similarly with the winter vegetables, we have about thirty different types of vegetables, but within each type we're growing several varieties. There are ten varieties of Brussel sprouts that we're evaluating and maybe about the same amount of cabbages. We're doing a huge array of different types not only to see how well they do for us, but also with the end goal of maybe selecting the best one or two for sale through our seed company.
MCP: Where does the name come from, Adaptive Seeds?
AS: It started with the Seed Ambassadors Project. Our friend Nick Routledge is a founding member of the Seed Ambassadors. He lit a fire under us and encouraged us to go to Europe to travel and collect seeds, talk to people and learn a lot about seeds from all over the world.
When we got back, we decided to start a retail seed company, and I thought Adaptive Seeds was a good name for a seed company, because the reason we wanted to start a seed company was to have locally or regionally adapted varieties–stuff that is co-evolving with us and our gardens and our farms. That's kind of what adaptive seeds means to us. Some people get it right away, and they're like–"That's great, that's poetic, that makes perfect sense, that's what we need." And other people are like–"Adaptive seeds? What's that about? Seeds don't adapt." We don't want to simply preserve the pedigree of a heritage variety. Like livestock conservancy, you want to preserve the identity of something. We're into that. We want to preserve rare varieties, but we also want to find stuff that grows well and can adapt to our climate and survive in our region.
MCP: Is seed saving and seed stewardship something that all gardeners and farmers should be thinking about?
AS: I think so. Yes, everyone should be a seed saver. But I also think no. Not everyone's necessarily cut out to be a seed saver, but if we want our food system to get where it needs to go, as far as sustainability and elegance and beauty and resilience, everyone's going to need to learn about seed saving so they have a more intimate relationship with their plants and their garden and their farm. So I don't necessarily see everyone becoming a seed saver, but I think everyone should at least try.
SK: (With slightly sarcastic yet serious tone.) Personally, I hope our neighbors don't save seeds–for cross pollination issues. If our neighbors start growing huge fields of corn or if they started growing broccoli, and we're trying to save Brussel sprout seeds–that's it for that. So to a certain extent, I think everyone saving seeds would be incredible, but there needs to be really good communication and dialogue between neighbors beforehand.
AS: Yes, more seed saving is essential. A friend, Carol Deppe, once told me that no matter what happens, there's going to be some seed savers or seed stewards or seed companies that are out there. Like even in tribal cultures, there are a few members of that community that are understood to be the seed stewards. So it's not essential that everyone save seed, but I think that everyone should have a relationship with seed saving.
MCP: Is there anything about Adaptive Seeds that makes it stand out? There are a few seed companies that have grown up in this valley. What sets Adaptive Seeds apart from other seed companies in this area?
AS: First of all, we grow all of our own seed. We don't buy and resell any seed. Most seed companies, including Territorial and Seeds of Change, and even the somewhat regional or more ecologically minded seed companies, contract or purchase seed in bulk. That is, they just package it and resell it. Rarely do they grow their own seed, and when they do, it's a small percentage of their catalogue. We're trying to grow everything ourselves so people who buy our seeds know the person who's stewarding the seed and what to expect from that seed–as opposed to buying cabbage seed from some company with a catalogue and not knowing who grew it or if it's ten year old seed and doesn't germinate well. It's about accountability and direct connection to our seed company. There are a few others like us that are doing the same thing, but mostly we're growing and saving it all ourselves–not buying and reselling.
SK: The vast majority of what's in our seed catalog is not available from any of the other seed companies in the area or even through the Seed Savers Exchange or other more national seed companies–because we brought a lot of the varieties back from other countries.
AS: Another very big point is that our second focus, possibly our primary focus, is finding varieties that grow really well here. A lot of those varieties are Oregon heirloom and Oregon heritage varieties or open-pollinated non-hybrid varieties that were bred for Oregon in Oregon. I think part of the idea for Adaptive Seeds is that a seed is going to grow best in the region that it was grown in and selected for and has been specifically adapted to. So we try to find some of the rarer varieties that aren't being offered by other companies or from local plant breeders like Tim Peters or Carol Deppe or Alan Kapuler. There really are a lot of great plant breeders in this area. Frank Morton in Philomath is another one. But that's the kind of seed that we want to be pushing really hard, because we know it has an in here already. The external seed that we bring in is mostly just to add diversity and add uniqueness and just happens to grow really well here. So we have Maria Naggy's hot pepper that we got in Transylvania. It's the fastest maturing pepper that I've ever grown. And it's big and happy and it tastes really fantastic. Our friend Harry McCormack says it's the best pepper he's ever tasted in his life. And that's not an Oregon heirloom. But it should be–or it should become a future Oregon heirloom. We're not really focusing on heirlooms necessarily, but we're focusing on things that grow well here that you can save seed on. Open-pollinated crops are not necessarily heirlooms, but they're certainly not hybrid seed which you can't save seed off of very easily.
MCP: You have something like 40 different dry-land beans varieties here. Is that right?
AS: We brought back 200 bean varieties from Europe which are not available in the United States. A lot of them are pole beans, and a lot of them are snap beans, and probably about 100 of them are dry bush beans–not dry-land beans. We think that on a smaller scale it's best to grow beans with a little bit of irrigation because you get a better yield and healthier plants. But it's really amazing to see the varieties. Every single one of them is completely different–completely different pattern, color, flavor, size, growing nature and ability. The few that we've actually cooked up and eaten–they taste completely different. Like the difference between a garbanzo bean and a lentil. That kind of difference between each variety. Even in the black beans. Each variety has a completely different flavor and texture. So one thing we want to do is add diversity to the bean world, because we think beans are an essential part of our sustainable food system.
MCP: So how does the work that the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project is doing fit in with what you're doing? Your experimentation with the beans, in my opinion, is precisely what is needed. A lot of the people in the Bean and Grain Project are farmers who are not going to do this kind of detailed seed work. And yet all of this is going to be extremely beneficial to them. How do you see this?
AS: I feel we've been part of the Bean and Grain Project from the beginning. When I first heard about the project, it was at Harry MacCormack's farm, and I gave him a bunch of seed because I thought he might like it. The next year he calls me up and says "some of this seed is great, and some of it didn't grow at all." I'm like, right, that's why we need more varieties of seed available if we're going to be successful with beans and grains in this valley. And to me, that's really what the Bean and Grain Project's about–helping farmers to be more successful with the beans and grains–and more variety is key. I think Harry first bought a bunch of beans out of the bulk bins at the First Alternative Co-op in Corvallis, and in almost a slightly absurdist way, said look, "If I can just get beans out of the bulk bins and grow them, well, you can grow beans here." But those beans tend to be adapted to other locations and longer seasons. So some of the beans we have dry down a lot quicker than those you might happen to pick out of a bulk bin. They also have a totally different flavor and color. We want, at some point, to be able to offer these beans to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, because if they grow in England or Ireland or Wales, where some of our best beans came from, they should be able to grow really well here.
MCP: Absolutely. That's great stuff, Andrew. And Sarah and Cooper. Thank you for this opportunity to talk with you and share this information with the Mud City Press audience. Also thank you for this work you're doing. It's exactly what we need to be working on. If anyone reading this interview is interested in subscribing to the Open Oak Farm bean and grain and winter vegetables CSA, simply go to the Open Oak Farm website. You can sign up for a subscription right there on the home page.
We mentioned the Seed Ambassadors earlier in our discussion. And it so happens that Nick Routledge, one of the Seed Ambassadors' founding members, is here today. Let's get him into the conversation and take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to talk a little about the Seed Ambassadors. It fits right in with what we've been talking about.