Mud City Press

Home | Spaceship Earth | Book Reviews | Buy a Book | Bean and Grain Index | Short Stories | Contact | Mud Blog



Project Report Five: July 22, 2009

By Dan Armstrong

The Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project held a farm tour and dinner on July 22, 2009 as part of the project's on-going effort to explore new crop models for Willamette Valley farmers. The tour was designed to give area farmers, food buyers, agronomists, and interested citizens a chance to see what was actually happening at ground level, regarding the growing of dry-land beans and grains at two Willamette Valley Farms–Harry MacCormack's 15-acre Sunbow Farm and Harry Stalford and Willow Coberly's 9000-acre Stalford Seed Farms. Though the 2009 growing season has offered considerable challenges to both farms, primarily with the dry-land beans, the tour itself was well attended and as thoroughly enjoyed as it was educational.

Some seventy people came to the tour at Sunbow Farm, and more than one hundred arrived for the tour and dinner at Stalford Seed Farms. This included forty farmers, some coming from as far away as Coquille (near Coos Bay) in the south and Yamhill (outside Portland) in the north. Judged by the most basic of the project's goals, increasing food production and crop diversity in the Willamette Valley and expanding the discussion of organic production to a wider base of farmers, the tour represented an important step forward.

Harry MacCormack

The Tour: "The only way to think about it is as one big experiment," began Harry MacCormack, standing at the back of his farm with the tour group gathered in close around him on the warm, cloudless sunny July afternoon. "We're on the flow from the north side of Maryís Peak." As proving his point, a stiff breeze blew in from the west, easing the heat, but forcing Harry to raise his voice so everyone could hear. "That's both an advantage and a disadvantage. It's pretty good for the grains, but for the beans and melons, it can be tricky, and part of what youíre going to see today is a bunch of problems with our fifth year of beans. Youíre going to see it over at the other farm too. This is why OSU has over the years cautioned about growing dry beans. We don't really have a stable climate. Our peak heat hours are right at the edge for growing dry beans and dry corn. Some years you can pull it off, and I did four years in a row. But we got overcome by weeds this year and a lot of that had to do with the way the climate laid out–very little winter rain and then rain right when we were germinating. The weed seeds that didnít germinate at all last year suddenly germinated and out grew the beans."

Off to Harry's left, several bean plots, garbanzos and pintos, were clear examples of what he'd just said. It took a moment to separate the rows of bean plants from the other things competing for space in the plot. But this wasn't the case at all for the grains.

Harry showed off many varieties of winter wheat–one grown for roof thatch, rye, and triticale, all looking very good, tall and ready for harvest. The grasses, the wheat and the rye, can be planted at a time of the year and close enough together that the weeds don't get much of a chance. This isn't so surprising. The valley has long produced winter wheat, but organic wheat is not so common and worth more per bushel. And this became the prevailing theme of the farm tour. Difficult lessons mixed in with the successes.

Handmade Wheat Thresher Pinto Beans at Sunbow Farm

"Iím totally convinced we can do dry beans in this valley. We've just got to pay attention while we do it," MacCormack told the audience. "We're farmers; when problems come up, we just do it again." And that was it. Last year's beans had done quite well with little weed problem at all, but the rotations, the crop combinations, the timing of the planting, the desire to grow without irrigation were all part of the learning experience, and, the "big experiment," as Harry put it. And that was true enough. From the beginning, it was well understood that trial and error, record keeping, communication among farmers, and education would be a central part of the Bean and Grain Project.

Harry gave the group a complete tour of his array of experimental plots. How each one is different or the same. If it were irrigated. When it was planted. The origin of the seeds. How he used mulch. Questions filtered in from the crowd and the answers wove into Harry's steady narrative. The overall feel of the tour was that of a large open workshop with discussions taking place within little clusters of the group that moved amoeba-like through the field. Some folks lingered to inspect a plot more closely, while the bulk of the others trailed off to keep up with Harry. Others explored ahead.

After an hour and a quarter at Sunbow, the tour group took the twenty minute drive east through Corvallis out toward Tangent to Stalford Seed Farms. The group had grown by then to more than a hundred and gathered in a big sheet metal warehouse off McLagan Road. Krishna Khalsa, a Eugene community organizer, Julie Tilt of Hummingbird Wholesale, and a few other helpers were already there laying out a big spread for the meal. Gian Mercurio, Willow Coberly's mother and overseer of organic production at Stalford Seed Farms, took over where Harry MacCormack left off. She introduced all the farm hands, her grandson, and farm manager John Maynard, then led the group out into the adjacent fields for the dayís second farm tour.

Gian Mercurio Organic Wheat at Stalford Seed Farms

Gian's opening was much like Harry MacCormack's. It started with weed pressure. "When we get out into the fields, you'll see that this year we've had an incredible weed problem," she told the tour group as they approached what appeared to be an unplanted, recently tilled, thirty-acre plot. "So much so, we have had to plow under our entire organic pinto bean crop." Farmland stretched out as far as you could see in all directions. Only an occasional stand of trees broke the patch work of fields and warehouses, some stacked to the top with hay. This was the center of grass seed country. Harry Stalford leases nine thousand acres of it and uses most of it for grass seed production. A large warehouse sitting out on the horizon in the west was Stalford's. A heap of just harvested grass seed was piled thirty feet high out front.

"I'm really proud of our organic wheat," Gian sang out, as she led the group south across the farm. She pointed ahead to two large fields of wheat (60 acres of hard red and 20 acres of soft white). It did look beautiful, an amber field of ripe wheat, gently leaning to the east with the breeze.

"What we would like to do is sell first to individuals," replied Gian to a question about how they sold their crop, recounting the underlying market strategy of the Bean and Grain Project that is essentially the reverse of the current global model. "Then second, what we would like do is sell locally–either directly to First Alternative Co-op, directly to Oregon State University, or directly to the school systems and the hospitals. Then the third thing we would do is go to small independent wholesalers like Hummingbird Wholesale, who have wider market access than we do. And lastly our conventional wheat goes out to the global market."

Gian led the group back to the warehouse, along test plots of triticale, flax, and millet, to a gourmet dinner of fresh local salad, home cooked deserts, and Krishna's hearty tempe sandwiches. Shepard Smith of Soil Smith Services was there with his string band When Picks Fly, and a toe-tapping, good time got going, chowing down and talking about the sights and scenes of two completely different types of farms conjoined by the desire to produce more organic beans and grains in the Willamette Valley.

After the dinner, about half the farm visitors took off with Mary Anne Jasper, who oversees Stalford Seed Farm's composting operation, and farm manager John Maynard to visit the farm's huge compost site. This was something new to the farm and critical to their transition to organic production. Now they can compost organic soil amendments right there on the farm as a substitute for chemical fertilizers. For anyone that does home composting, turning kitchen scraps into their yard clippings and so forth, this was really a spectacular sight. Huge pieces of machinery mixed long rows of composting field debris with chicken manure and other material in the steady process of creating a nutrient rich, organic soil amendment. It was also an important insight for local farmers to witness the real work and time and thought involved in the conversion of a farm from one kind of production to another, wholly different kind of production. For all the trials and tribulations, successes and little set backs, make no mistake, the transition from conventional to organic is a multi-year process.

Tour of Compost Site Compost Site Equipment

Obersvations: Stalford Seed Farms planted 91 acres of organic beans (30 of pinto–plowed under, 30 of black, 20 of garbanzo, and 11 of orca/ansazi-type) and 80 acres of organic wheat, plus half-acre organic test plots of brown flax, golden flax, buckwheat, millet, lentils, and triticale. In addition to the organic crops, they planted 37 acres of first-year transitional pintos and 25 acres of first-year transitional orcas. They also planted 110 acres of conventional beans (sprayed for weeds)–90 of garbanzo and 20 of black–and a thousand acres of conventional soft winter wheat. This totals up to approximately three times more bean and organic grain acreage than they cultivated last year.

Judging from the July farm tour, the Bean and Grain Project is making an impact on the community despite clear difficulties in the field. In terms of the crops, the organic wheat at Stalford Seed Farms stands out as a huge positive. Compared to the acre and a half of organic wheat that was grown there last year, this year's 80 acres will give a much better idea what the demand for locally grown organic wheat is in this area. Though some hand-weeding was done early, it showed that organic wheat can be grown on more than a test plot–and, quite likely, with a fair profit if sold locally.

The beans took a step backward in results and a step forward in education. Last year's beans, though going in late and having some harvesting problems, grew quite well without irrigation and without weeds and needed little or no attention. With more than 250 acres planted this year, it was thought that a hearty crop would be a solid test of the local demand for dry beans; however, the excess of weeds will cut seriously into the yield, and the harvest will be uneven. Some of the beans will be conventional, and a fair share of what comes out of the organic plots will be held over as seed. Exactly what can go to market remains to be seen, but guessing from last year's experience, it is unlikely the demand will be fully tested. This is a considerable disappointment. Continued experimentation with the bean will be necessary. New rotations, perhaps some cultivation or disking after planting, or even some early irrigation to get the bean canopy to act as a weed suppressor were some of the suggestions that were batted about by tour attendees.

In terms of community interest, the turn-out for the tour exceeded expectations and that forty farmers were there was very exciting. Throughout the tour, during the fabulous dinner and music, the conversation was exactly what was hoped for–a wide-ranging discussion of growing beans and grains, when to plant, how to harvest, what machinery is necessary, what market exists, and what to do about the pests and weeds. As Harry MacCormack would repeat more than once, this is one great big experiment–and it only takes a small plot and a handful of beans to get involved in it.

The current condition of the grass seed market adds to the drama of the dialogue. The price of grass seed is down, in many cases by more than fifty percent, and most growers are selling at a loss. Even as this year's grass seed is harvested, last year's grass seed is still not completely sold. The situation is truly dire, and the recent field burning ban only makes matters more difficult.

Twenty months ago, when MacCormack was preaching a new model–more food, organic, sell locally, only a few of the larger growers took notice, but now that the grass seed model is under duress, many Willamette Valley farmers are looking for other options. The bankers that finance these farmers are similarly asking for a change. Wheat is surely part of the answer. Conventional wheat is wavering around the five dollar a bushel price today (mid-August)–and that's right on the edge of profitability. Organic wheat gets another couple of dollars per bushel, but yield numbers are likely to be less for organic than conventional.

The bigger problem for wheat is the lack of local infrastructure. As was discovered last year, when conventional wheat was selling at $8.50 a bushel and Willamette Valley wheat acreage was up by a factor of four, the grain storage that once existed in the valley is now either gone, converted to grass seed, or in disrepair. The logistics of delivery to the Port of Portland also need work, and local milling operations are few and far between. Regardless of price, without infrastructure, full conversion to a wheat business model is still a topic of debate, and a wider more comprehensive exploration of agricultural models for this valley is necessary.

Are poor grass seed sales simply a result of the current economic turndown? Will prices perk up in two or three years? Or is this a long-term trend linked to fuel prices, food needs, and larger and more permanent global market dynamics? No one can answer these questions with an absolute right now. But one thing is certain. Rebuilding the wheat industry infrastructure in this valley will take a major investment and will involve a lot of risk. And it won't happen over night.

This brings us back to the farmers' current frustration. Things are in transition with an outcome no one can foresee. Growers can't chase the market year to year, always lagging behind peak prices one season to the next. Farming works best with a stable business model and a predictable market–as grass seed has been for 30 years. And that was part of the reason the Bean and Grain Project tour drew as much attention as it did. That stability is gone. Diversified crops must be explored. Local niche crops must be experimented with. The beans, the edible seeds, the flax, the grains, they are all part of the discussion now. It takes some courage and risk to explore these choices. And the tour showed just what that looked like as two Corvallis-area farms, now several years into the adventure, opened their doors so others could see and learn–and perhaps point the way to a Willamette Valley future that includes much more food production.

NOTE: Due to the responses and concerns voiced at the tour and afterward, the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project will host two follow-up meetings on October 13 and 14 for farmers interested in further discussion of bean and grain production, other agricultural business models, and ways to prompt a local market for local crops. See Flyer for farmer meetings.

Feedback from the Tour

In the week following the farm tour, the Bean and Grain Project received several emails in response to the tour. Many of the emails were simply thanks, compliments on the meal, and a general exchange of good will for the work of the project. Other email writers offered advice on cultivation, notes from their own experiences, or requests for further information. Below are some of the comments received: (Italics are added for emphasis.)

1. We are growing 3 acres of flax and 6 acres of spring wheat. This is not certified organic but grown with organic methods. The wheat mostly lodged after a big storm back in June, but still coming along fine and we'll be able to combine it. The flax is doing well. Getting ready to start with the combine this next week. I'm very interested in growing dry-land beans or peas for next year but have never done that before. It would be great to have some way to share information among the group a couple of times a year. Since we're rather new to growing grain and bean crops it would be helpful to bounce ideas off an assortment of folks, especially when figuring out what to plant.

2. For beans, at least, irrigated fields are much preferred; there is too much at stake to lose a crop to a dry summer. For hard red spring wheat to have good milling qualities irrigation at early flag leaf stage along with additional nitrogen applications (organic or conventional) will be required in our climate.

3. Beans must be planted in rows wide enough to allow cultivation if for organic production. I've had neighbors grow sizeable acres of pintos, black turtle beans, garbanzo and red beans over the past 25-30 years, both for the commercial market and as seed stock for Michigan State, and all were planted and managed in this manner. Dry beans might be pushing the extent of our growing season here, but with the right conditions in place our odds improve dramatically.

4. It's now time to move the production base to include growers with actual commercial experience managing these and similar crops, and if the market encourages organic production to begin transitioning some acres that way. It may also be educational to see some test plot-size production using conventional practices to get a benchmark perspective of whatís attainable and what could be adapted, as far as harvest and processing issues, that would be the same whether organically or conventionally produced.

5. The Bean and Grain Project will struggle increasingly if a sustainable harvest base is not soon established. An initial base production could and likely will include conventional, transitional, and organic production. The emphasis on local production will be the market driver until sufficient production is available in "local organic" acres or pounds.

6. We have grown small quantities of dry beans (1/2 acre) organically (not certified) for many years. One of the more limiting factors for us has been weed control. Dry-land beans are different than the grain crops in that all of the summer annual weeds that are not removed will have gone to seed by the time of harvest, potentially leaving a heavy seed load in the soil, compounding the problem for future years. Simple rotation will not solve this problem as the weed seed remains viable for tens of years. This issue will weigh significantly on the sustainability of organic dry bean production in the Willamette Valley, particularly for growers who do not cultivate. I believe it is important to stress that organic production is NOT a simple transition.

7. I am interested in growing my own wheat on a small-scale. I did some last year and one of my problems was thrashing. I did it by hand and do not want to repeat this process. I found small-scale (walk-behind) thrashers on the web and wonder if anybody has had some experience with them or knows someone who owns one. (Websites for walk-behind thrashers: Swift Machine and Weldling and Amar Agricultural Machinery Group.)

8. I have had success with pinto beans and garbanzo beans in fair-sized garden plots. The garbanzos have been particularly successful. They have some tolerance for cooler weather and can be planted in April, even with ground temperatures below fifty degrees. Hand-weeding and early watering to accelerate growth of leaf canopy are practices that are difficult in large-scale operations, but are easy in garden or small scale homestead operations.

The Bean and Grain Project welcomes feedback on the project, crops you are growing, insights into the cultivation of beans and grains, or opportunities for local sales and distritbution. Relevant and/or constructive comments will be posted here. Email comments to FEEDBACK.

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 Anne Donahue for farm tour photos.

Prairie Fire

Home | Spaceship Earth | Book Reviews | Buy a Book | Bean and Grain Index | Short Stories | Contact | Mud Blog