Local Grains

I have been visiting A2R Farms outside of Corvallis Oregon all year.  They are a former conventional grass seed farm transitioning to organic seed crops, primarily for local distribution.  I watched as they planted the fields and as the crops grew—flax, chick peas, sunflowers and wheat.  And as harvest season approached I looked over at the combines and asked my friend Clinton Lindsey, “Which one am I driving?”

So I was delighted to get a call one morning in August.  Over the hum of a motor Clint told me, “Hey Jason, I’m harvesting the field north of our office today if you want to visit.”  Heck yeah!  And I could bring the whole family.  It was Saturday and we all would get a turn in the cab.

It is the middle of August and time to harvest wheat in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Clint lets my 11 year old son steer a John Deere combine.

What it Does

The combine performs tasks that replace an enormous amount of labor in a reliable and timely fashion.  It cuts the stalks of seed crops, threshes the heads to dislodge the seeds, and then separates the seeds from the straw and chaff.  Without the combine (and a series of intermediate technologies), harvesting grains involves manually cutting stalks, bundling them, transporting the bundle to storage, threshing and winnowing.

The labor efficiency of the combine is extreme.  Over the course of a long and somewhat boring 12 hour day in his air conditioned cab (made a little better by listening to audio books on an iPod), Clint can harvest about 25 acres of wheat.  We visited while he was in a field with a hard red variety that yields about 2400 lbs per acre (soft white yields are 2-3 times higher).  In one day, Clint and his machine will collect 60,000 lbs of hard red wheat, or 1000 bushels.

Each pound of wheat contains about 1500 food calories (i.e., kilo calories), and a person needs about 2500 calories per day.  A year’s supply of calories for a person is in the neighborhood of 900,000, which in wheat units is 600 lbs.  In simple terms, during a day of work Clint can supply the annual food needs of 100 people.  Of course he and his dad Mike also spent days prepping and sowing the field, and there are hours planning, maintaining equipment, and marketing, etc., but in total the amount of time actually spent with machines on that 25 acres is probably only a week or so.  And since Clint and his family manage to farm several hundred acres it all works out to about 100 people fed by one guy like Clint, which is typical for the US food system.

Social Context

One of the main enablers of a demographic shift away from a rural-agrarian population to an urban-industrial one is the combine.  The combine removes most labor from agriculture for the most critical crops:  edible grains, legumes and oil seeds.  Seeds are a highly portable, storable and versatile class of food, allowing civilizations to trade and buffer against shortages.  Most calories now consumed derive directly or indirectly from seeds.

The percent agriculture population is plotted in relation to per capita energy use.  Nations with abundant use of exosomatic energy tend to have less of their population involved in agricultural production, presumably either because they can afford to import much of their food or employ labor saving devices in food production.  For example, only about 1% of the US labor force is involved in farming.  Data come from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  Original article containing figure is here.

This is why I spend a lot of time studying not only pastured livestock, which we use almost exclusively on our land during the organic transition process, but the seed industry, which will feed us in the long run.  Go back several decades and the Willamette Valley fed itself and exported a diversity of grains, especially wheat.  In more recent times, most of the acreage has converted to grass seed for lawns.  Still, the equipment to sow, harvest, clean and transport seeds is similar, whether it is used for turf grass, edible grains, or forage and cover crop seeds.

Shift to the years 2007-2008 and the beginning of a new era.   Commodity prices are on the rise, promising great gross returns for farmers growing crops such as wheat, but taking away most profits by parallel gains in fertilizer and fuel costs.  Meanwhile, the housing market is suddenly crashing, and with it much of the demand for lawn seed.

The same equipment is used for many purposes.  In this image, Dallas Goracke loads a bag of pasture seed mix into his no-till drill at our Fern Rd Farm.  He and his brothers grow a diversity of seed crops and have their own grass seed distribution business.  Ten years ago they converted to no-till agriculture for all their acreage, saving about 23,000 gallons of diesel per year.

These two trends,  a rise in basic commodity prices and a decline in the turf grass industry, caused many farmers to look for something else to plant.  Almost all seed croppers shifted to wheat for some of their acreage.  A few have also responded by transitioning to organic, which carries two obvious advantages—avoiding the costs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and organic price premiums.  Those going organic are also working on value added marketing and processing, such as selling locally, and selling wheat flour or rolled oats.

Grain and Bean Project

I have spent the past couple of years watching this happen and participating in some of the discussions.  Keeping track of this shifting landscape, and shaping it to some extent, is the Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project.

The originators of the project were small scale organic farmers and citizens interested in food security.  They foresaw that the large conventional farmers around them would soon have some troubles and they began conversations and experiments to provide alternatives—hoping these would be adopted when needed.

One of the crops now being grown in the area after decades of absence is flax.  These seeds are just off the combine at A2R Farms.

What has emerged is a lose affiliation of farmers, food buyers, bakers and chefs, government representatives, non-profits and food activists.  I would encourage a visit to the project web site, and I’ll write more about what I have seen and learned in future posts.