Edible Seeds Making a Comeback

The Willamette Valley is famous for its grass seed production, and can even boast supplying the World Cup soccer fields in South Africa.  The dominance of grass seed began to wane with the collapse of the housing bubble a few years ago.  And while the major shift has been towards wheat, much more is going on. I promised in a past blog post to review the regional resurgence of an edible and more diversified seed crop industry and will do so now.  Prompting comes from recent front page coverage in the Oregonian, namely an article by Eric Mortensen titled “Flax returns to the Willamette Valley in fertile land that once grew grass seed” which happened to profile the same farm I did in my January 2011 blog post titled Local Grains.  It is a good article and I encourage folks to read it.  I will also show that wheat and flax are parts of a diverse, tasty mix of culinary staples.  First, I’ll highlight a couple of quotes from the Mortensen piece:
This is a changing state that romanticizes its farms but doesn’t understand its farmers. Two-thirds of its farmers and ranchers are older than 55. Ownership of 9 million acres, more than half the state’s farmland, is projected to change hands in the next decade. The next generation has to do more than master the multiple skills farming requires: They’ll be hard-pressed to fend off development pressure while connecting with an urban population intensely, sometimes intrusively, interested in what they’re doing.
What a great summary paragraph of the complex social and demographic situation in agriculture.  This is why 30 something year olds like the article’s protagonist, my friend Clint Lindsey, get so much attention:  More of them are needed if we are all going to eat 20 years from now.   And these young farmers are entering the profession during one of the most tumultuous periods in the past few decades.  Again from the article:
Lindsey and his father decoupled the farm from the international commodities market. With their partners, they plan to install a small grain mill. From now on, they intend to sell grain, seed and flour to bakeries, restaurants and specialty stores within 150 miles. It is less a revolution than a throwback. They are at the forefront of restoring an infrastructure that grows, processes, markets and consumes food locally.
So not only are these farmers trying to grow a diversity of edible seeds—from wheat to chick peas to flax, but they are working to re-localize processing and distribution.  There are several reasons why, but mostly you will hear it is about niche marketing opportunities catering to the locavore craze, growth in the organic food industry, capturing the margins of processing and distribution, and developing strong and stable relationships with buyers to avoid the ups and downs of commodity markets.

A crowd of local eaters gathers at the edge of a flax field at A2R Farms near Corvallis, OR.  Clint and Mike pose for cameras and answer many questions.

But I also know that there’s something else going on.  Nearly all farmers by now have connected the dots between the cost of energy and the cost of their inputs.  This means a rise in food commodity prices often doesn’t improve net farm income because modern farms have their inputs priced by commodity markets too.  I wrote earlier about the tight correlation between the price of oil and the price of food.  Oil prices are also a good proxy for farm input costs.  Therefore, some farmers have decided there’s a long-term advantage in cutting the distance between themselves and their customers, and by reducing the volatility of input costs by using organic, or quasi-organic, methods. A few months ago Clint gave me a call while in my neighborhood.  He wanted to make sure I was home so he could stop by with something.  A loaf of bread… “his” bread.  We shared a few moments of excitement and praise before Clint had to go.  Then I started making sandwiches with it and haven’t gone back. Some people have their livelihood riding on building a regional food system and that motivation seems to be getting it done, one slice at a time.  But beyond the economic and food security issues that come up, I must say that watching this happen, and really working to do my part, is also a lot of fun.

My first loaf of Oregon Grains, by Nature Bake, which uses wheat, oats and flax from A2R Farms.

Wheat, flax and what else?

Okay, there’s been plenty of talk about wheat and flax.  Let me showcase more of the contenders for our newly appreciated regional seed crops.  Almost none of these are sold by commercial seed dealers around here.  Farmers are buying seed stock from other parts of the country (or world) and seeing what can be locally adapted.  A few seeds are even sourced directly from the bulk bins of grocery stores! Last summer a few of the local farms gave public tours and I have pictures and notes that I am drawing from.  Also, I have attended some meetings of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project and have these notes.  Dan Armstrong has written well about these discussions on his web site. While the public tours were on the larger farms, with the area being managed ranging from 900 to 9000 acres, a few small farms are also involved in the development of grains and beans and alternative edible seed crops.  The most well-known small farm is Sunbow Farm, one of the founders of the Bean and Grain Project, and newcomers such as Adaptive Seeds are trying many species and varieties.  A number of the small farm varieties won’t work on the large farms because they can’t be mechanically harvested.  Much of the discussion revolves around harvesting issues, and the big farms need plants that can be field dried, cut and combined efficiently.  For the most part, I will restrict myself to what the larger farms are doing. I will briefly discuss three categories of edible seed crops:  grains, legumes and “others.” Grains are grass species (family Poaceae). These are usually cool season crops, known broadly as small grains, planted in fall or spring for mid-summer harvest.  Soft white wheat is the main grain in the valley, but farmers are now growing hard red wheat (which has higher protein levels and can be used in leavened breads) hulless oats and hulless barley for human consumption (as opposed to the more common feed oats and barley varieties).  There is excitement over a six row malting barley being developed by a breeder at Oregon State University.  Cereal rye and triticale get some mentions, but the market for them is less certain.  The most common summer grown grain in the area is corn, but it is all sweet corn for processing.  Small farms are trying other types of corn but none of the big farms are.  I was surprised to learn that a couple of farms are now growing teff for sale to a local food wholesaler.

A table display at Stalford Seed Farms near Shed, OR highlights their flour products.  This farm has been key in the development of locally adapted hard red wheat and beans, and in the formation of Willamette Seed and Grain LLC, which processes, markets and distributes for local farms transitioning out of conventional grass seed and into edibles.

Legumes (family Fabaceae) fix nitrogen and are part of a healthy crop rotation.  Historically this area has produced clover seed.  The edible newcomers are lentils, chick peas, pinto and black beans.  Lentils and chick peas are probably better for our cooler climate as they can be sown before the last frost and mature quickly to be harvested in dry summer conditions.  Pinto and black beans are warm season crops that have had some success, but during the past couple of years the harvest has gone poorly as we’ve had cool summers and the beans didn’t dry in the field well enough before fall.  Something to keep an eye on is chickling vetch, which is being tested by farmers.  Soybeans like it hot, so nobody is sure they will be a good fit around here, although small farms are growing edamame varieties.

Rows of pinto beans at Stalford Seed Farms.

Flax (family Linaceae) has uses for food, fiber and industrial oil.  The cool climate here is perfect for flax, which can be either fall or spring sown.  Buckwheat is a very quickly maturing plant (family Polygonaceae) that is used as a summer cover crop and for its edible seed, which is usually made into a flour.  Cool season oil seed crops (family Brassicaceae) in the area may eventually be used for human food, and farmers are interested in these as they add to the crop rotation potential.  Canola grows well but is semi-banned since it can cross with vegetable relatives grown commercially.  Another member of the same plant family, Camelina, is better accepted.  Locally it has primarily been promoted for biofuel production, but is used for food in Europe.  Sunflowers, which have varieties developed for either seed or pressed oil, are being tried but may be marginal because of potentially cool summers.

The tour included a stop and delicious meal at Tom Hunton’s place near Junction City (Tom also owns SureCrop).  Pictured here is a field of buckwheat in flower.  I was also impressed by the diversity of commercial scale field trials on this farm, such as teff, and varieties of chick peas and lentils. Later in the year Tom reported a yield of 1800 lbs/acre for variety Dillon chick peas on his Malabon soil.

Where does Farmland LP fit in?

If you read this blog it is obvious that we are mainly doing livestock production on the farmland we manage.  This is because growing seed crops organically during the transition period from conventional farming is very difficult, which the Oregonian article touches upon.  By contrast, livestock grazing prevents weeds from going to seed, builds soil fertility, and provides us with a steady income before we are certified organic. What we will do once our land becomes certified organic and the soils are in great shape is offer sections to organic seed farmers.  We will be looking for those with experience and the ability to plan and implement a diverse crop rotation.  After a few years in annual seed crops the land will go back into pasture, and the seed farmer may be given new areas to sow.  This pattern is expected to reduce the management costs and risk to the farmer while increasing yields, which should increase profitability for all of us.