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Project Report Four: March, 2009

By Dan Armstrong

On January 20th, 2009, the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project gave a presentation at the OSU Extension Service Auditorium in Eugene, Oregon on the feasibility of growing dry-land beans and grains in the Willamette Valley and selling them in local markets. ( See Presentation Report.) Though several people spoke, this was primarily a report by Harry MacCormack and Harry Stalford on their experiences growing several varieties of beans and grains in 2008. The presentation was aimed at farmers with the intention of attracting more growers.

About seventy farmers came to the meeting. More than half were small homestead farmers. Perhaps twenty or twenty-five were commercial growers and a handful were large grass seed producers. The discussion was lively and full of positive energy and ended with Harry MacCormack announcing that there would be two follow-up meetings in March for those who were interested in taking the next step–that is, actually planting some beans and grains in the spring. One follow-up meeting would take place in Eugene on March 10th, again at the OSU Extension Service Auditorium, and the other would take place outside Corvallis on March 17th at the Grange Hall in Tangent. The meetings would focus on the technical and logistical side of growing beans and grains– what varieties did best in what micro-climes, where to get seeds, when to plant, what problems to expect, and various cultivation suggestions.

These two meetings represented the final distillation of one full-year of outreach to the community and work in the field, and while the meetings would focus on information sharing, they would boil down to one simple question: How many additional acres of beans and grains would be planted in 2009? If there were any simple measure of the success of the project, that was it, increased acreage–with an emphasis on organic. Based on the acreage and yield statistics reported to the Bean and Grain Project in 2008, approximately 102 acres were planted in beans and 2-plus acres in grains, with another fraction of an acre devoted to edible seeds, amaranth and quinoa–for a total of 105 acres.

Wheat Stalks

Nine farmers attended the follow-up meeting in Eugene, plus John Maynard, the manager at Stalford Farms, and Harry MacCormack. John Caputo of Oregon Tilth was there, as was Ross Penhallegon, the horticulturist at the Extension Service. Two buyers came down from Portland, and six members of the Bean and Grain Project also took part–Krishna Khalsa, Julie Tilt, Tim Laue, Lynne Fessenden, Chris Peterson, and Dan Armstrong.

The discussion was wide ranging and enthusiastic. It began with introductions; each grower stated why he or she was there and what experience they had with bean and grain cultivation. Three of the farmers were conventional farmers, a father and son, and Herman Hemke, an Oregon transplant from Germany. Six were homestead farmers.

This proportion of alternative and conventional farmers was expected. The southern Willamette Valley, particularly the Eugene area, attracted many from the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, and the homestead farmers who attended the meeting could be labeled the second-wave of that movement. For the most part these folks were organic farmers with small parcels of land. Their interest was all about self-reliance, and because of their concerns about food security and fossil fuel depletion, growing beans and grains as staples contained a sense of urgency for them. The conventional farmers were there primarily out of curiosity and what they planted would be experiments to test the local markets.

There was considerable interest among the homestead farmers in quinoa and amaranth, both high protein edible seeds. Harry MacCormack told the group that there were many strains of acclimated quinoa seeds in the community and that he started his in trays in April, then transplanted the starts in mid-May, planting them every twelve inches in rows two feet apart. Harry said he'd had difficulty with the Amaranth, but that the red was much easier to grow in the valley than the gold.

Grain was not as popular to this group as were the beans. Processing the grain is a major hurdle. On the small homestead farms, the threshing must be done by hand and is difficult, though it was noted that there are portable pedal threshers available from Asia for $600. Grain is a little easier to handle for the large-scale producers with big combines and threshing machines.

Krishna Khalsa spoke at length about the potential of using early season wheat grass clippings to make a wheat grass powder, a nutrient dense additive for pasta and other dishes. The wheat is allowed to grow until the first joint appears, then the top portion of the stem is mowed off to be dried. The plant then continues growing for the rest of the season and produces a full crop. The German farmer was attracted to the economic possibilities of getting two products from the same crop.

Most of those present, however, were interested in planting beans– particularly the garbanzos. Harry reminded everyone that the beans were sensitive to frost and recommended putting them in at the end of April, four to six inches apart with a foot to a foot and a half between rows. They were planted in mid-May last year at Stalford Farms and that proved a bit late.

A quick run around the table at the end of the Eugene meeting revealed that all the growers in attendance, and one of the buyers, intended to plant beans, grains, or edible seeds in the spring. The father and son planned to experiment with maybe five acres of beans. The German farmer wanted to try ten acres of soy beans and ten of wheat. The homestead farms tallied a combined ten acres of assorted dry beans and three of flax. John Maynard, reporting for Stalford Farms, which accounted from more than ninety-five percent of all the plantings in 2008, said they were jumping to 40 acres of spring wheat and perhaps as much as 150 acres of beans (black, garbanzo, soy, anaszi-type, lentils), and maybe some flax. This made the group total 50 acres of wheat, 175 acres of beans, and 3-10 of flax. This was not a tremendous amount of new acreage–not really enough yet to test the market. But the commitment to the project was there, especially from the homestead farmers. All were asked to keep track of their varieties, acreages, yields, and planting dates, and the project would add them to the assemblage of information after harvest in the fall.

The New Gold is Green

The second follow-up meeting was forty miles up the road and a week later in Tangent. Appropriately enough, the group met in Oregonís first Grange Hall. The building was constructed in 1873 and was a simple white structure that looked roughly like a church. It sat out in the middle of nine thousand acres with flat farmland and isolated farm buildings as far as you could see.

Five farmers came to the Grange Hall, plus Harry MacCormack and Harry Stalford and his wife Willow Coberly. Three members of the Ten Rivers Food Web were there, Chris Peterson, Terry Rossiter, and Dan Sundseth, a USDA farm agent. Andy Bennett and John Caputo of Oregon Tilth attended, as did Gabe Pallastrini, the buyer at First Alternative Co-op. Dan Armstrong and Krishna Khalsa were up from Eugene.

The atmosphere was entirely different than it was in Eugene. Those who attended the Eugene meeting had already made up their mind to grow beans or wheat and they were excited to learn more about the planting. But in Tangent, there were no homestead farmers and, besides Harry, only two organic growers, a couple who grew heirloom beans on a small piece of land and sold them at premium prices, niche market farmers. There was one large grass seed producer and two other mid-size conventional farmers at the table. These were farmers with many acres of farmland in play, but they were still sitting on the outside. That they were there at the meeting, however, was a good sign, even though they were subdued and somewhat skeptical.

Harry Stalford was the man in the middle. He knew all these farmers and they knew him. He had a good reputation in the valley and his being there got these others to attend, but they weren't committed to the beans and grains like the Eugene group and were yet another long leap of faith from going organic. So in a sense this was the third time in the last eleven months that a mixed group of farmers, organic and conventional, sat down with Harry MacCormack around a table and parsed it out.

The Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project and Harry MacCormack, specifically, had been pushing the organic and staples argument out into the farming community for some time now. Progress had been slow, but the message was getting out there and the conventional farmers, it seemed, were at least chewing it over a little more than they had a year ago. What did peaking oil production mean to the future of conventional farming? And grass seed production in particular? Maybe growing food was the thing to do? Maybe organic too? The farmers in the valley are generally smart. They watch the markets. They have to. Fertilizer was up. Diesel was at a premium. And while the price of wheat was down from last year, it was still over five dollars a bushel–even more than that for organic, and the price of grass seed was down by half. Harry Stalford confessed in the middle of the meeting that his banker had asked him outright, "Why are you growing grass seed?" This drew some hesitant chuckles then a spell of silence. It was true. The times were changing. It may not happen overnight, but it was clear, the worm had turned–even if it was a nematode.

To be sure, Harry Stalford had entered into organic farming because of his wife Willow. She was very committed to food production and the beans and grains. Food, organic, and sustainable, that was her take on the future. And on this day in March, 2009, her husband Harry was getting just enough good natured ribbing from the other farmers to make the case himself. He would often say he didn't know what he was doing, that he was just kind of going at it hit or miss, an experiment or two, but that was how he always was, when in fact, he surely had thought it all out and was not nearly as haphazard about the whole thing as he could make it seem.

In the end, the Tangent meeting produced a generally positive and constructive discourse. But as expected, when the question moved around the table–would any of those present venture into beans or grains this spring?–there were no new takers. Not one extra acre offered up. The surprise came, however, when the question was directed at Harry Stalford. A week previously, John Maynard, speaking for Stalford Farms in Eugene, said the plan was for maybe a total of 200 acres. Now at the table in Tangent, Harry Stalford said it would be 500 acres. This was a very significant increase and enough to truly test the bean market for sure. Now any farmer you might speak to would qualify anything he said in March about as yet unplanted fields by saying, I wonít really know until after Iíve put the seeds in the ground. They all tend to play it close to the vest. Stalford is no different. So this five hundred acre figure should be held in abeyance until the ground is actually planted. But no matter how you look at it, this should be taken as a very good sign. Last year's spring planting of 105 acres could be as much as 550 in 2009.

In the Eugene meeting, there had been a suggestion that interested farmers and homesteaders should visit Stalford Farms in June and check the progress of the crops. This was positively received. A little group would gather and walk the fields, check out the various beans and grains and see for themselves how things were faring in 2009. This idea came up again in Tangent. Harry Stalford was all for it, and the other farmers there said, yes, that was something they'd like to do also. Again, a good sign–some toes in the water from a very reluctant group of waders.

So it may be that most of the new growers would be small acreage homestead farmers and that no new farmers were gathered from the meeting in Tangent, but there's no denying that something is stirring. Something no less than a reappraisal of grass seed production and an important dialogue between organic and conventional farmers. And if those beans are looking good in June and ten or fifteen farmers are inspecting them together, you'd have to believe something a little bigger than a pot of beans will get boiled up at this time next year.

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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