From grass to grains

An Oregon local foods movement finds opportunity in the economic crisis

  • Harry MacCormack of Sunbow Farm near Philomath examines an experimental plot where he is growing fava beans, in addition to a variety of other beans and grains that can be grown and consumed locally in the Willamette Valley.

    Brian Davies/The Register-Gaurd

The storage sheds, combines, trucks and pesticide tanks on Harry Stalford's grass-seed farm suggest a standard farming operation. With his ruddy cheeks and farmer's ball cap, Stalford looks pretty typical, too. But looks can be deceiving. Stalford and his wife, Willow Coberly, have begun a pioneering experiment on part of their 9,000-acre Willamette Valley spread.

The couple owns the first large conventional farm to join the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project, a movement to rebuild and re-localize the entire food system in Oregon's most productive farming region. Instead of focusing exclusively on expensive specialty foods — the fruits, meats and vegetables found at local farmers' markets and restaurants — the project aims to organically grow and locally sell the grains and beans that are the foundation of most diets. Eventually, project members hope that all the food consumed here will be local. And they say that the Willamette Valley's 900,000 acres of cropland are more than adequate to feed its 2.5 million residents, including Portland.

That conversion won't be easy: Growers here abandoned the hard red wheat ideal for bread and other domestic uses because they decided the climate was unsuitable for high yields. Grain mills, once a fixture in every town, have been dismantled. Grass-seed farms have gobbled up about 60 percent of the cropland, earning the valley distinction as "the Grass Seed Capital of the World." Local farms often grow soft white wheat in rotation with grass seed — but it is shipped overseas to produce Asian noodles, flatbreads and pastries.

The global economic crisis may offer the Bean and Grain Project an unprecedented opportunity to begin changing that dynamic. The price of oil — necessary to transport goods to far-off markets — has destabilized. Soft white wheat prices have fluctuated wildly. And demand for grass seed for new lawns, golf courses and other uses is down, thanks to the collapse of the real estate market, increased competition from Canadian growers and other economic factors. "Grass-seed prices are so low that farmers are looking for other things to grow," says Julie Tilt of Hummingbird Wholesale, a Eugene-based organic distributor and Bean and Grain Project organizer. Why not try growing foods for the local market?

The seeds for the project were planted several years ago when farmer and food activist Harry MacCormack bought a bunch of beans and grains from the bulk bins in the Corvallis co-op and successfully grew many of them on his 15-acre organic farm. Further experiments and discussion eventually led MacCormack, Stalford, Coberly and others to found the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project in January 2008. It has grown since: Participants now include other organic farmers, community activists, two food security groups, a USDA Farm Services director, an Extension horticulturalist and others. In 2008, MacCormack and five homestead-size farms grew nine varieties of beans and more than a dozen grains. Stalford and Coberly planted 100 acres of five types of beans, and produced a successful harvest of organic hard red wheat. And both Stalford and MacCormack were able to sell everything they grew.

Still, demand alone isn't enough to turn large-scale grass-seed farms into food producers. With the economy in the tank, conventional farmers want to diversify and stabilize their income. But they're also wary of change. That means Stalford — a leader in the grass-seed industry — is key. If he can make it work, says his friend, Sherri Falk, a longtime grass-seed grower, others will likely follow.

The transition hasn't been easy for Stalford, who has no experience with organic methods. "We're just shooting in the dark," he says. "We have no idea what we are doing." Coberly is more optimistic. True, the couple planted their beans too late last year, and some didn't ripen in time. But the red wheat and garbanzos did well and fetched excellent prices. Coberly has been pushing Stalford to explore sustainable farming practices. Swayed by the soil depletion and fertility losses he's seen over 40 years of farming, Stalford is rotating crops, composting crop waste, and reducing chemical use on his fields. Stalford says his neighbors tease him down at the coffee shop, but he's not giving up. This year, Stalford and Coberly are increasing their certified organic crop of red wheat and dry beans to 135 acres. They also plan to get an additional 360 acres certified for organic food production — a three-year process — and Stalford is considering planting 500 acres of beans in rotation with his grass seed.

The increased production, however, raises an infrastructure problem. Hummingbird Wholesale and the Corvallis co-op are committed to buying local beans and grains, but the storage and processing systems have to be rebuilt. Project organizers need businesses interested in developing storage, processing and distribution for local food. The Ten Rivers Food Web, a local food nonprofit that MacCormack helped found, recently purchased a portable seed cleaner. The group did a study examining the feasibility of local processing and has applied for more grant money to build a community processing facility.

A January Bean and Grain meeting in Eugene drew many skeptical grass-seed farmers: Folks with well-worn jeans and work-roughened hands packed the room. Since then, two new Willamette Valley farmers have signed on to grow food for Hummingbird Wholesale this year. One, a large grass-seed farmer, will plant 20 acres of organic pumpkin seeds. The other will grow three or four acres of organic flax seed. Despite the battered economy, demand for bulk organic foods is up, Tilt says. MacCormack says the main obstacles remain mind-set and infrastructure. And, he says, those are obstacles that can be overcome. 

Carla A. Wise is a conservation biologist and environmental writer based in Corvallis, Oregon.

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