Searching for flour where the wheat grows

 


There are three of us driving down a long gravel driveway. We are just outside Shedd, Ore., in a town too small for most maps. The farmer is expecting us, though he doesn’t know we’re on a mission to restore part of the West’s agricultural past. My companions are part of a group called the Wheat Project, and our aim is to do it all: Grow wheat, mill it and sell it locally.

The Springer farm lies near the center of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s agricultural heart, where at least 170 different crops are grown. My freezer in nearby Corvallis is filled with locally grown blueberries, strawberries, corn, lamb and beef to help get my family through the winter. Farms in this valley also produce a rainbow of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, dairy products and nuts that could easily fill out a food pyramid. Yet only about 2 percent of the food consumed in our area is produced locally, and I’m beginning to grasp why: Eating close to home is hard to do.

Take wheat. Farms around here grow lots of it. Over 10,000 acres of wheat were grown in our three-county region, according to the latest census, producing over 1 million bushels, which is about 60 million pounds. But this wheat is soft, white winter wheat, a low-protein, high-yield variety unsuited for bread making. The wheat grown here is shipped overseas to make pastries, flatbreads, and other foods.

Meanwhile, the wheat flour we use in Corvallis comes from elsewhere, perhaps passing the wheat we grow heading in opposite directions. This long-distance food system relies on oil -- agriculture accounts for 17 percent of this country’s energy consumption -- and four-fifths of this energy is consumed after the harvest for processing, packaging, warehousing, refrigerating and transporting our food. We want to change this equation, starting with wheat.

Mr. Springer leads us into one of his outbuildings, and inside is a grain mill, about five feet high, that he salvaged and rebuilt decades ago. For many years, he explains, he grew hard red wheat and milled it into flour. He shows us the grinding stone and the wheel you turn to adjust the fineness of the flour. We rub the slippery soft flour between our fingers. Next, he shows us the 1937 tractor he hooked up to the mill for power. You run the tractor engine real slow, he instructs, or the flour will come out too warm. Although he quit growing red wheat a few years ago, he’s got lots of flour in his freezer and cooks pancakes with it each morning.

We spend a couple of hours visiting, learning about the farm, seeing his antiques and hearing Mr. Springer’s thoughts about life and farming. He has outlived both his wife and his son, and seems to relish our company. It’s a sweet visit, and it ends too soon.

The conventional wisdom is that the wet climate in the Willamette Valley is a poor match for the hard red wheat that makes good bread flour. Experts say yields will be low, disease problems high, and getting the high protein content needed for bread flour won’t be easy. But Mr. Springer told us he never had those problems.

We made one other visit a few miles north of the Springer farm, where a family is experimenting with growing a few acres of organic red wheat. They mostly grow grass seed, but every few years they need a different crop to put into rotation. Now, they’re considering planting hard red wheat. We look at the scraggly plants in the experimental field, and it makes me think of my garden experiments, often so tenuous the first year.

The farmers are trying seed from different sources, testing the soil and adding compost. There’s a mill an hour south that may be willing to mill the wheat that’s locally produced. If so, our Corvallis food co-op has promised to buy its wheat.

Since those visits, I’ve talked about what we learned to everyone who will listen. My friends probably wonder why I’m so excited about the local food movement. When I try to explain, here’s what I come up with: Helping to build a local food system is good in every way I can count. It supports farmers and helps to protect their land from subdivision development. It reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s good for better health and greater pleasure from food. It strengthens food security by protecting against disasters large and small. Finally, it has shown me many nearby blessings in people, the land, great ideas, and of course, Mr. Springer.

Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a biologist and environmental writer in Corvallis, Oregon.
High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.