Farmer encourages switch to grain from grass

CORVALLIS — Harry MacCormack has been growing grains for more than 40 years, which until recently made him a rarity in the mid-valley, where grass seed is the predominant crop. He long has held the idea that cereal grains — most commonly wheat, maize, oats, barley, rice, rye, triticale and millet — when combined with nutrition-rich beans such as soybeans are truly the stuff of life, locally produced.

Six years ago, MacCormack started encouraging other farmers to grow grains when he read an item in Chris Peterson's biweekly "Fresh Sheet" column on local food in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

"She was talking about the fact that she had gone through the bulk section of the co-op, and there were no local grains or seeds there," he said. "I wanted to see if it would work. Data shows that 90 percent of our emergency food system is based in beans and grains."

So MacCormack, who owns Sunbow Farm west of Corvallis, field-tested various grains and kept track of the growth data. The summer of 2004 yielded 150 bushels an acre of white wheat, "which is pretty good for white wheat in this area," he said. "It blew my mind."

That fall, MacCormack was invited to speak at a conference in Eugene, where he shared his data with Oregon farmers. Unbeknownst to him, the information inspired other Willamette Valley farmers to try planting some of their acreage in grain instead of grass seed.

"I didn't realize that was what was going to happen," he said. But he's no stranger to championing the local foods movement.

MacCormack started several farmers markets, and he once served on the board of directors for the Ten Rivers Food Web. He founded the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project, with a goal of adding more diversity to the local food system, which had been scant on grain production.

According to the Oregon Wheat Commission, 92 percent of all Oregon wheat — most of it grown east of the Cascades — is exported, primarily to Asian nations, where it is especially prized for making noodles.

"Historically, grass seed farmers have had some grain as a rotation crop," said Lynne Fessenden, the director of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition. That grain, however, was sold in the commodity market. "It's kind of maddening seeing this crop growing in the valley and not being able to buy it."

In the 1950s through the 1970s, Willamette Valley growers produced a wide array of fruits and vegetables, but wheat dominated the field by almost a third of what was planted. In the 1980s, when wheat prices began dropping, Willamette Valley farmers began a steady conversion of wheat acreage to grass seed production for forage, suburban lawns and golf courses.

By 1990, grass seed was the valley's dominant crop, with Linn County leading the nation in production. In 2006, 560,000 of the valley's 900,000 acres of cropland were for the production of grass seed.

But in 2009, after the housing market collapsed and new construction came to a halt, the market for grass seed for new lawns also plummeted. Local farmers quickly began switching to wheat. Around that same time, large global producers of wheat such as Russia and Australia had crop failures, which made the switch profitable. But it also succeeded locally with "locavores," who like to buy their food close to where it is produced.

Since the inception of the local project, three farms have began growing grain for local sale: A2R in Corvallis, Hunton Family Farms in Junction City and Stalford Farms in Tangent. As of 2011, there are unofficially 12 farms participating in the project and some 1,000 acres transitioning to organic beans and grains.

The project reports that it has not met demand for three straight years — signs of a healthy appetite for local beans and grains in the Willamette Valley.

"I think it's good for everybody," MacCormack said. The hard part, he said, is convincing consumers to pay a fair price to cover the cost of paying living wages and benefits for the workers who produced the grain. However, that's a concept at the heart of the membership of the First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op, which has been supportive of the grain project from the start.

"I prefer to buy my grains here because, after 48 hours, the milled oils go rancid," said Nancy Baumeister of Corvallis. Baumeister works at the co-op's north Corvallis store at Grant Avenue and 29th Street. She said the wheat is perfect for making fresh tortillas.

"It has higher nutrients, and it's local," she said.

The co-op installed a grinder in 2009 so customers could not only buy local grains but make them into flour at the push of a button. Since then, sales of grains have increased dramatically, said George Brown, the co-op's bulk buyer assistant.

"When we just sold the local wheat berries, we'd sell maybe 25 pounds a month," Brown said. "Now we sell between 50 and 75 pounds a week."

Baumeister is an advocate for keeping food systems close because she said you never know when the current system might fail, leaving the shelves at the stores empty.

"Food security," she said. "We might as well learn to do it now before we need to."

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