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Project Report Three: January 20, 2009

By Dan Armstrong

On January 20, 2009, approximately 70 farmers, including several large grass seed producers, came to the Oregon State University Extension Service auditorium in Eugene for a presentation from the Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project on the feasibility of growing dry-land beans and grains in the Willamette Valley and selling them in local markets. The presentation began with a brief introduction by Corvallis farmer Harry MacCormack describing why Willamette Valley farmers might want to consider growing more food crops, what opportunities exist in the cultivation of beans and grains, and how that might contribute to the local economy and replenish the regional food system. After these opening remarks, a panel of producers spoke to the audience about their experiences growing beans and red wheat n 2008. This was followed by a panel of buyers who talked about the marketing of those crops. Thirty minutes of questions and answers followed each panel.

Harry MacCormack

PANEL OF FARMERS: (Harry MacCormack, Sunbow Farm, Corvallis, Oregon, Harry Stalford and Gian Mercurio, Stalford Seed Farms, Tangent, Oregon)

Harry MacCormack began by saying he became interested in the cultivation of dry-land beans and grains in 2005 when he discovered that the bulk beans and grains sold at his local food co-op came from China or other distant sources. Over the next four years, he planted small test plots of various varieties of beans and grains to determine if any of them could produce the quantity and quality needed to make them viable crops in the Willamette Valley. Based on results he saw in those test plots and the demand he witnessed for locally grown beans and grains in 2008, Harry expressed confidence that at "per pound" prices, as opposed to "per bushel" prices, modest profits could be made growing beans and grains on homestead-scale farms. Harry then spoke to the nutritional density of beans and grains and their importance as storable staple crops. He shared photos of his crops, details of his field trials, the planting times, his harvesting experiences, and the time and cost of cleaning and processing the product. Harry concluded by expressing his concerns about the lack of food system infrastructure in the valley, emphasizing the shortage of adequate long-term bean or grain storage. (For details on the 2008 growing season and the evolution of the Bean and Grain Project, see Bean and Grain Report One and Bean and Grain Report Two)

Harry Stalford has been a large-scale grass seed producer in the Willamette Valley for over twenty years, managing some 9,000 acres of farmland in the south valley. Harry's wife, Willow Coberly, met Harry MacCormack in 2005 and became extremely interested in the idea of converting some of the Stalford Seed Farms' acreage to organic food production. Despite her husband's reluctance, she convinced him to transition 130 acres of grass seed acreage to organic for bean and grain field trials. This was done over a period of three years with regular applications of compost tea to build soil biology and breakdown chemical residues. In the spring of 2008, Harry Stalford hesitantly planted 20-acre plots of black, pinto, garbanzo, and anasazi-type beans, 20 acres of lentils, and smaller plots of red wheat, triticale, and soy beans. This was the second stage of testing the viability of the beans and grains in the valley; that is, seeing how the experimental crops would fare on larger plots of land than MacCormack's fifteen-acre market-garden farm could provide. With his deep skepticism of the entire process as a backdrop, Harry Stalford presented a very convincing and objective view of his experience growing beans and grains during the 2008 season. He expressed his frustrations at trying new crops, his mistakes both in planting and harvesting, his concerns about controlling weeds and pests in the transition to organic, and his general aversion to change. He then confessed that by the end of the growing season, though the lentils, anasazi-type beans, and soybeans did not fare well, he and his wife Willow were enthused by their results with the red wheat and the black, pinto, and garbanzo beans. In his summation, Harry Stalford leveled with the audience saying that change is never easy, that trial and error is always part of farming, and that he intends to increase his acreage of beans and the red wheat in the 2009 growing season.

Gian Mercurtio, Harry Stalford's mother-in-law, spoke for her daughter Willow, who was out of town at the time of the presentation. Gian told how she and Willow had gone to an international organic farming conference in Europe two years earlier, and how after that, both she and Willow became convinced that organic food crops had a place and a future in the Willamette Valley. Gian also said she was particularly excited about growing pinto beans because she had grown up in the southwest United States and understood the importance of growing food crops that do not need irrigation.

PANEL OF LOCA BUYERS: (Julie Tilt, owner Hummingbird Wholesale, Eugene, Oregon, Gabe Pallastrini, Bulk Foods Manager, First Alternative Co-op, Corvallis, Oregon, Krishna Singh Khalsa, Community Organizer, Eugene, Oregon)

Julie Tilt was an instrumental part of the Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project. Throughout the growing season, even when a cold June threatened the bean harvest, she committed Hummingbird Wholesale to buying all the beans Stalford Seed Farms could produce. Julie began her talk by verifying that there was considerably more demand for locally grown beans than were available from Stalford Seed Farms in 2008, adding that she had already begun to line up buyers for next year's crop. She also said that though Hummingbird specialized in organic, her customers were open to transitional beans grown locally and that they are willing to pay premium prices for either local or organic products. In response to a question about institutional buying, Julie affirmed that there was growing interest in Lane County schools for buying locally grown products and that Hummingbird Wholesale was amid discussions with the University of Oregon to supply locally grown beans.

Gabe Pallastrini, much like Julie Tilt, was a committed buyer of Stalford Seed Farms beans from the beginning. He repeated what Julie emphasized–that the demand greatly outran the supply. He added that the red wheat was a big seller at First Alternative Co-op.

Krishna Khalsa was one of the original members of the Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project. As a community organizer, he was instrumental in publicizing the project with food generosity events, serving free bean and grain meals at various venues in Eugene. At the street level, he helped a neighborhood buying group make a 2300-pound purchase of garbanzo beans directly from Stalford Seed Farms. As part of the panel, Krishna unveiled his own project to increase local food processing capacity in the valley by converting mobile homes to mobile commercial kitchens. These mobile kitchens could be used to incubate new food processing businesses or simply act as mobile food sources.

Points of Emphasis

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.

Prairie Fire

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