When grass seed prices crashed in 2008, a group of Willamette Valley farmers decided to switch part of their production to food crops. Now, not only are their results successful, but they may be laying the foundation for a different kind of food economy in Oregon.
There used to be small-scale commercial stone grist mills all over the Willamette Valley, but this--and a couple of others like it--are believed to be the first since the Great Depression:
"Right now we are in the process of milling hard red wheat into whole wheat bread flour."
Clint Lindsey manages sales for Greenwillow Grains in Brownsville.
There are about a million acres under cultivation in the Willamette Valley. In 2007, more than half was devoted to grass seed, the number two crop in Oregon at the time. Then the housing market collapsed and took grass seed prices and acreage with it. They still have not completely recovered. Grass seed is now number six and accounts for about 40-percent of valley acreage. Some farmers switched part of their acreage to food crops: Wheat, rye, beans like pintos and garbanzos, even a little quinoa for the gluten-free crowd. Greenwillow took it further, adding value to their wheat by milling it:
"It's working great. We can't keep up with the demand. People seek us out and now we've got all that we can handle."
Greenwillow is small enough that the flour is bagged by Clint's father Mike,
All by hand. The bags are even fastened using a hand tool:
Lindsey says bakers are finding new flavors in small-scale wheat flours:
"That's any exciting thing about growing wheat is that it's similar to wine in that it has terroir. It's got flavor. Each year is different. And depending on where you grow a given variety it could taste different grown here than on the other side of the Cascades."
Terroir is the set of characteristics imparted to food by the soil and climate. You don't have to go far to find a baker using Greenwillow's flour. At Randy's Main Street Cafe, just down the block, Tiana Millard uses it for sandwiches:
"It's a light wheat bread. It's really delicious. A lot of our customers come in just for the bread I think."
This might seem to be a nice little success story to some people. To Harry McCormack it's part of a movement to change the world. McCormack, who farms in Corvallis, leads about a dozen organic farmers who want to build a local food economy and get away from a globalized food system:
"The biggest thing that we were looking at and continue to look at is that this is an unsustainable food economy that we live in worldwide cause it's all based on cheap fuel."
McCormack believes we'll see a big rise in fuel prices in the future. He argues that local is fresher and healthier and better for the valley economy. He preaches that gospel to grass seed farmers unsure if their market will ever fully recover. Advocates of produce more food and more kinds of food locally point to environmental and energy benefits. But sometimes it's a net benefit to the environment to truck products from far away. Oregon State University Professor Larry Lev says take coffee. You could grow it here indoors but it would take a tremendous amount of energy:
"So you go through crop by crop, production system by production system to figure out what could make sense and what might not make sense."
While the Willamette Valley is still the grass seed capital of the world, much of the grass seed acreage is not well-suited to anything else:
"There're soils that are kind of clay so they don't drain very well. There's not irrigation so it's ideal for grass seed because you don't want it to rain in the summer time when you're trying to harvest the seed crop. And it's less than ideal for any kind of a food crop when you have to irrigate and many of these acres don't have water available to them."
Still, Lev says much grass seed acreage could be converted to easily meet a growing demand for locally based in-season crops. Harry McCormack says he and his bean and grain project have been getting calls from around the world:
"There's a model now. It's been picked up even in India. Places everywhere. Ohio, I've talked to growers there, they're doing it. If you go into Vermont and New Hampshire you'll find grains being grown there for the first time in years and years."
The yields some of the new wheat farmers are getting can be twice that in traditional wheat growing areas.