By Mark Musick
Grain production was once common in agricultural communities throughout our region, and re-establishing small-scale grain growing and processing is central to building resilient local food economies. More than 50 Washington farmers grow certified organic grains, including wheat, barley, triticale, rye, oats, spelt, corn, and buckwheat.
With growing interest in local, organically grown foods, demand is increasing for organic grains. In 2011 the state had 5,786 acres in certified organic wheat, 940 acres of triticale, 35 acres in rye, and 162 acres in oats. Barley saw the greatest year-to-year expansion in organic plantings, leaping from 151 acres to 783 acres between 2010 and 2011.
In a survey of 73 commercial bakers in Western Washington, researchers at WSU Mount Vernon found an interest in sourcing up to 3.5 million pounds of locally grown flour per year. Concerns about price and availability, they said, could be addressed with moderate increases in production and processing.
Dr Stephen Jones, director of the WSU Northwest Research & Extension Center, has researched grain production both sides of the Cascades. He is currently leading efforts to re-establish local production in Western Washington. As part of this effort, WSU research faculty and students are testing hard wheat varieties to meet specific needs of local farmers and bakeries. Farmers are also re-tooling grain drills, combines and threshing equipment to harvest and process grains for market.
Growers across the region are expanding grain production. For example, Nash Huber at Nash’s Organic Produce has worked with Dr Jones to test wheat varieties suitable for Clallam County’s rich Dungeness Valley. Mike Sundstom grows organic oats and Merrill wheat at Valley View Farm, his family’s 160-acre third-generation farm on San Juan Island. His wheat is ground into flour by Fairhaven Mills in Bellingham and sold to the San Juan Island Food Coop and the Coho Restaurant in Friday Harbor.
East of the Cascades, Sam and Brooke Lucy have established a loyal following for their heirloom emmer, northern rye, hard and soft white wheats grown at Bluebird Grain Farms near Winthrop in the Methow Valley.
In addition to chefs, bakers and home cooks, a growing number of craft brewers and distillers are seeking barley and other grains to make beers and liquors. Washington now has two certified organic breweries, Elliott Bay in Seattle and Fish Brewing Co in Olympia, both of which are seeking malting barleys from Northwest farms.
Our state also passed a law in 2008 providing for micro-distilleries, with a requirement that 51% of their ingredients must be sourced within the state. Washington’s first two certified organic distilleries, Fremont Mischief and Bainbridge Organic Distillers, are creating new markets for grains from Washington organic farms.
Along with demand for human food and beverages, livestock producers are looking for local sources of certified organic feed. Drought in the Midwest is causing feed for poultry, pigs, beef and dairy animals to skyrocket, prompting increased interest in expanding local production.