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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.”
No small part of that message revolves around identifying and implementing sustainable practices.
“The idea behind growing sustainable products is to let farmers produce safe, high-quality crops in a way that will allow the soil to remain productive,” says Fleming. “That way, the farm can continue to generate a profit and be passed down to the next generation.”
For eastern Washington producers who grow a significant portion of their grain on sloped ground, sustainability often equals farming systems that check soil erosion. To most Shepherd’s Grain producers, this means direct seeding (no-till).
“Growers who have not already made a commitment to reduced-tillage practices are encouraged to do so,” says Fleming. He says members in transition to more sustainable practices are required to annually document improvements to their production.
John Aeschliman, Colfax, Washington, is a longtime proponent of direct seeding and a Shepherd’s Grain member. Aeschliman sees Shepherd’s Grain as more than just an aggregator of identity-preserved wheat. There is an educational component, as well.
“We have an obligation to share with our fellow growers how they can benefit from adopting a more sustainable system,” he says. “For example, I have taken over conventionally farmed ground that had a history of producing 29 bushels per acre of wheat and pushed it up to 80-plus bushels with our no-till rotations.”
For Aeschliman, it’s a matter of reversing a downward yield spiral caused by excessive tillage, erosion, and out-of-control weed infestations.
“Years of plowing with the same summer fallow-wheat has destroyed half the soil life in this county,” he says. “We have to build it back up, and Shepherd’s Grain is helping to do just that.”
One of the most innovative aspects of Shepherd’s Grain is its willingness to use the infrastructure of existing food processing and distribution entities, rather than building its own. Fleming refers to these companies as strategic supply chain partners and admits that they have played an integral role in the success of Shepherd’s Grain identity-preserved program.
“Shepherd’s Grain flour is milled at a local Spokane ADM facility and wholesaled through established regional and national distributors,” he says. “These strategic partnerships are based on common values and the desire for long-term relationships.”
Strategic partnering doesn’t just apply to processing and distribution, adds Fleming. From its start, the founders of the firm recognized the importance of working with an established third-party certification program to adjudicate their efforts and to confirm that their members were adhering to a specific set of standards.
“Third-party certification gives the customer assurance we are who we say we are,” Fleming says. “People having that faith in your product is invaluable.”
Providing that service for Shepherd’s Grain is Food Alliance (FA), a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit firm. FA provides sustainability standards, evaluation tools, and a voluntary, third-party certification program outlined on FA’s home page, http://foodalliance.org/. All farmers joining Shepherd’s Grain must participate in the program.
“Our farmers are allocating 15% to 25% of the wheat they grow to Shepherd’s Grain,” he says. “Our customers now know who Shepherd’s Grain is and what we stand for, and they like what they see.”