Good stewardship = Great premiums?
Melvin Hall makes the final adjustments on the 54-foot single-pass no-till air drill he’s using to directly seed hard red winter wheat into spring wheat stubble.
By spring, he will make a herbicide pass that may include fertilizer if soil tests show it will boost yield or protein.
During August harvest, he will store the wheat in an on-farm grain bin until it is trucked to a commercial mill, ground into flour, and then distributed to local artisan bakers. They will transform it into a variety of signature breads and pastries.
The Reardan, Washington, farmer admits that if someone had predicted he would one day direct-seed hard red winter wheat specifically for Northwestern bakeries, he would have questioned that person’s veracity.
Except for the ground he farms and the ground of others who share his vision, his area’s crop rotation is locked into a winter wheat-spring barley-summer mix that relies heavily on conventional tillage. Eight to 12 passes per crop are not uncommon.
No-till isn’t the only practice that’s out of sync with most neighboring farms. The wheat grown is mainly a soft winter white exported to Japan for noodle and sponge cake production.
So Why The Change?
That answer lies in the farmer-driven marketing entity, Columbia Plateau Producers LLC, and its brand, Shepherd’s Grain. The brainchild of eastern Washington grain producers Karl Kupers and Fred Fleming, the Shepherd’s Grain organization consists of 41 grower-members, from southern Alberta, the Pacific Northwest, and southern California. These farmers are dedicated to building a sustainable system that doesn’t depend on federal commodity subsidies and that does address the regional challenges of soil erosion and soil degradation.
“We are here because a growing segment of our society wants to know where its wheat comes from and that it is being sustainably grown,” says Fleming. “That is what Shepherd’s Grain is all about.”
Fleming says the firm focuses on creating a farmer-to-consumer supply chain for a quality-branded product that offers members an alternative to the commodity roller-coaster alternative. “We want to be price-setters, not price-takers,” he says.
Fleming sees the firm positioned firmly in the camp of the local food movement, which has exploded from $4 billion in sales in 2002 to $11 billion in 2011.
In a recent National Association of the Specialty Food Trade survey, 75% of its retailer-members say the word local was the most influential product claim in 2012.
“We want all those who buy Shepherd’s Grain products to know exactly who, where, and how their food is grown,” he says. “Our farmers are proud of what they grow and how they grow it. I believe our website conveys that message.”