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In the Beginning


It's become backyard legend in Corvallis and the rest of the south valley how Harry MacCormack read Chris Peterson's article in First Alternative Co-op's monthly publication The Co-op Thymes and promptly bought sixteen small bags of bulk items and planted them at Sunbow Farm. That was spring 2006. Seven months later, January, 2007, The Co-op Thymes, published Chris' follow-up article. It spoke to the results of Harry's "little experiment" growing staples. That article, entitled "Bulking Up Locally-Grown at First Alternative," tells the rest of the story—that is, the rest of the story of the beginning of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. It's remarkable how much sense this article echoes six years later.

The article is reprinted below.

Garden Planet

Bulkng Up Locally-Grown at First Alternative

by Chris Peterson

Eyebrows arched last May when I wrote about First Alternative's bulk department and how none of the staple items I'd inquired about were grown locally. Some came from as far away as China and Paraguay. While some people saw this as a dereliction of duty on the part of F.A. staff, Co-op owner Harry MacCormack knew it was more complicated than that.

MacCormack, also the proprietor of Sunbow Farm, responded to the article by purchasing small amounts of sixteen bulk items and planting them. His results could prompt a mini-revolution in the local food system if enough people truly care about where their food comes from. At the very least, the experiment shines a light on the dark side of the current global food system.

First, the samples MacCormack bought, all organically-grown, tallied up to less than $10. "This is because of cheap labor, especially in foreign countries, and cheap oil," he said. The U.S. commodity system, where farmers are forced to store–or pay to store–their grains or legumes until a broker is ready to buy, means he may not get paid for a year or more. No wonder so many small and mid-sized farms go under. "That's not a sustainable food system," MacCormack said. "In a local, sustainable food system, the crop should be spoken for before it's planted and paid for up front by the purchasers."

The experimental bulk crops were planted in May. Three days of frigid weather right afterward kept most snuggled tightly in their beds, except the black beans from China. "They came flying out of the ground," MacCormack said, "and were four to six inches tall before most of the rest of the stuff was even up." The golden flax came up quickly too, which isn't surprising since the flax was once a major crop here. Soybeans had the hardest time.

The crops were purposely stressed by minimal irrigation to see how well they'd do in good organic soil. Mother Nature stressed them further with very hot weather, but all survived.

Harvest dates were a concern for MacCormack. "Here, you want dry crops like these off the field preferably before the first of September because cool, wet weather can set in. The black, pinto, and garbanzo beans were all done by mid-August, though if it had been a cooler summer, it might have taken longer."

Scale was another factor. At Sunbow Farm, 4-foot by 100-foot beds allow the ground to be prepared in fall and hand-planted in the spring. "Using a tractor, you'd have to wait for the soil to dry," MacCormack said, "With high organic matter, you'd be waiting into June." MacCormack and fellow small-scale farmers, Dr. Alan Kapuler and Mark Stuart have been experimenting with crop yields on smaller acreages using smaller, less damaging equipment or hand methods. "Say the Co-op needs about 100 pounds of dry black beans a month," MacCormack said. "That's 1,200 pounds a year and we got about 2,860 pounds per acre this year, so less than an acre would take care of the Co-op." Determine the needs of some restaurants, institutions, and individuals and you could plan and sell crops efficiently for local consumption.

But, here's the rub: even though the Co-op is willing to buy those beans, as are shoppers, where would they be stored until the bins need to be filled? Most small farmers don't have such space and neither does the Co-op. Is either willing to invest in dry, pest-free storage? Or, would customers be willing to purchase a year's supply at a time and store it themselves? What are other options? Community storage facilities?

Processing is another consideration. Most of the experimental crops can be managed with simple equipment, or by hand. Could a number of farmers or farmer/consumer cooperatives invest in and share a small combine that would harvest small plots? Would consumers be willing to finish the cleaning and bagging? Or, would people be willing to do this very part-time seasonal work in exchange for food or wages?

The next obvious step is processing more perishable crops like vegetables (canning tomatoes) or fruits (freezing berries, drying plums, etc.). Think of all the tomatoes that go unused at the end of the summer, but that would be eagerly consumed in winter–by restaurants and institutions, as well as individuals–if only they could be preserved.

The lessons from MacCormack's experiment? Like every food retailer, the Co-op has been sucked into the vortex of the global food system. We all have. But we can extricate ourselves, at least in part. MacCormack thinks we could supply 30% of the bulk items locally within a year or two. "In terms of survival foods—those that are dried and stored without electricity, like beans and grains—we have to think of more community involvement," he said. Then the community would work towards the next step of refrigeration and processing (canning, drying, freezing). Ideally, every town would contract with its surrounding farmers for all kinds of foods–meats, poultry, eggs, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, honey, etc. This is happening somewhat at First Alternative now more than at any other Corvallis grocery store, but could be expanded. The local economy and community food security would strengthen in direct proportion to the growth of these relationships.

But, the questions remain: are we, as consumers, willing to forgo the convenience of shopping–and maybe even eating–as we do now? Are we willing to alter our diets according to seasonal availability when necessary? Are we willing to be active Co-op owners and work through the necessary steps to support local growers and unharness ourselves from the all-or-nothing global food system? Rather than "go without," it can mean opportunities for new culinary horizons. It might also inspire new small businesses to create new foods - even convenience foods.

The potential is there. Is the interest and commitment?

Go to Part I

Photo courtesy of Tom Hunton, Hunton Family Farm.

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