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No-till links farmers to local consumers

What do you get when you combine direct seed-production methods with a movement to eat more locally? The result is a marketing strategy that's paying off for a group of farmers in the Palouse region of northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Farmers who are part of Shepherd's Grain produce wheat using direct seed or no-till production systems. A portion of each farm's production is milled into flour and sold directly to Pacific Northwest artisan bread makers and other end users.

“It's changing the way we produce wheat and changing the way we market it,” says Karl Kupers, a Harrington, Washington, farmer and one of the founders of Shepherd's Grain. “We are building a brand to tell the no-till story and to enhance the economics of no-till.”

Although roughly half of the 2 million acres of farm ground in the Palouse have a slope of 8% to 30%, no-till adoption is not that high. In high rainfall years, like the spring of 2011, county roads can be buried by soil washing off of conventionally tilled fields. Yet some farmers are reluctant to adopt direct seed methods because of concerns about potential yield losses and the cost of equipment.

Even though Shepherd's Grain can't do anything about new no-till drill costs, the farmers involved set the price of flour to cover their production costs. The price is good for one year, and buyers are given a six-month notice before it changes. It's not exactly the premium many growers would like to receive to change agronomic practices or varieties, but it provides certainty to both buyers and sellers.

For Ben Davis, knowing what the flour price will be for the next 12 months is crucial to developing a business plan in today's economy. Davis is co-owner and president of Grand Central Bakery with nine locations in Portland and Seattle.

He provided bakers and ovens to test the first flours produced by Shepherd's Grain in the early 2000s, but he chose not to become a buyer at that time. Bakers relied on precise formulas and processes to make the hand-formed artisan loaves and didn't want to gamble on flours that varied from mill run to mill run.

“We knew how to make bread our way,” Davis says of those early days. “Since then, we have become better bakers. We are more confident with exploring different flours, different proteins, different water contents, and different prefermentation processes.”

But the impetus to give Shepherd's Grain another chance came in 2008 when the price of flour skyrocketed. “We are willing to pay a little more for the flour because our costs are known,” he says.

The decision also matches the bakery's commitment to purchase around half of the ingredients from local farmers. Davis believes his customers also want to know their food's source, so he includes a list of farmers along with the Shepherd's Grain story on the bakery's website.

Eating locally
The locovore movement has caught on in recent years, but Kupers saw potential as early as the late 1990s in a local cooperative market in the Puget Sound, Washington, area. He was intrigued by barrels of whole wheat kernels in the bulk aisle. He read the lengthy product descriptions and talked with shoppers about what they liked.

“Everything we do in the no-till system was what they said they wanted from food production. We just needed to learn to speak their language,” Kupers says.

Picking up the lingo wasn't as difficult as figuring out which varieties would both yield well and make great bread.

Russ Zenner was one of the first growers to sell wheat through Shepherd's Grain. He markets between 15% and 20% of his production annually through Shepherd's Grain.

While he appreciates the diversity in his marketing plan that Shepherd's Grain brings, it's the contact between buyer and seller that he values the most. Each year, growers host chefs, bakers, and food service representatives from the Portland and Seattle areas at their farms.

“Meeting people in the food industry who have a similar passion for their business like we do for ours has been one of the fun things in this whole Shepherd's Grain endeavor,” he says.

Davis agrees. “It's the connection with people producing your food that makes the business fun,” he says. “If you have an intimate knowledge of the producers and how the food was grown, then you can turn great wheat into great bread or great vegetables into great soup.”

Zenner is asked why the group chose to focus on sustainable production practices, most notably direct seed, rather than organic.

Ideally, both would be best, Zenner says, but they haven't figured out how to control weeds and diseases organically. More rotational diversification would help, but that has proven to be more difficult than picking up the lingo of the local foods movement.

Kupers researched growing and selling crops such as sunflowers, millet, and buckwheat through Shepherd's Grain, but it became apparent customers trusted them to raise wheat, not sunflowers.

“Rightly so,” Kupers admits. “We are not a traditional sunflower-growing region.”

Another problem was processing facilities for crops other than wheat in the Palouse are hard to find.

“You don't realize what a monocrop system the Palouse is until you start looking for processing facilities for other crops,” Kupers says.
Yet within the monocrop culture of wheat, growers have introduced some diversity by growing several different wheat classes, including dark northern spring and soft white wheat. Different wheat classes are blended to make five different kinds of flours. Wheat is milled in small batches throughout the year to meet consumer demand.

Recruiting growers from a wide geographic area representing different rainfall patterns and elevation helps spread weather risks. But Shepherd's Grain has also been careful not to expand the grower base until after demand dictates growth.

After sticking with the same 33 growers for the last three years or so, Shepherd's Grain expanded to 43 in 2011. Growers pledge production after harvest. The limited liability corporation accepts grain until it reaches the inventory level that can be marketed in the coming year at the price it sets.

“Basically we have decommodized wheat,” Kupers says. “We're not commodity producers; we're food producers.”

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