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THE SOUTHERN WILLAMETTE VALLEY BEAN AND GRAIN PROJECT

Project Report Eight: Three Farm Tours, August 2010

By Dan Armstrong

Last year the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project hosted a farm tour and dinner at Stalford Seed Farms in late July. Because of the increased number of farms participating in the work of the Bean and Grain Project in 2010, and because of the tremendous interest and positive feedback from last year's tour, the Bean and Grain Project expanded its public outreach to three farm tours and dinners this year, all occurring in August. These tours are part of a continued effort to inform the public, other farmers, and bulk buyers–distributors, chefs, bakers, restaurants–about what the Bean and Grain Project is, what crops are being grown, what these crops look like in the field, where the markets are for these crops, and who the farmers are that are involved in this work. These tours are also a great opportunity to socialize and enjoy various dishes made from local beans and grains, including fresh bread made from hard red wheat grown in the Willamette Valley.

Hat Full of Lentils
Hat Full of Lentils

BAKERS AND CHEFS TOUR: The first tour took place on August 2. It was arranged specifically for Willamette Valley bakers and chefs and was the most extensive of the three tours. This three-farm tour was essentially an all-day affair that began at noon at Stalford Seed Farms in Tangent with a talk about the Bean and Grain Project by the project originator, Harry MacCormack, followed by a talk and field tour led by Gian Mercurio of Stalford Seed Farms. At one-thirty, the group of about forty traveled via caravan to A2R Farms in Corvallis for a tour led by A2R's Clint Lindsey. At three-thirty, the caravan proceeded to the Hunton Family Farm in Junction City for a tour led by Tom Hunton. The day ended beside the pond at Hunton's farm with a beautiful dinner prepared by Melissa Williams of Adam's Sustainable Table Restaurant. (Read more and see photos from tour.)

HUNTON FAMILY FARM TOUR: The second tour was open to the public and took place at the Hunton Family Farm in Junction City on August 11. The tour was given by Tom Hunton and included a dinner prepared from locally sourced beans, grains, and produce with beer provided by Oakshire Brewery and music by Shepard Smith's string band When Picks Fly. (Read more and see photos from tour.)

STALFORD SEED FARMS TOUR: The third tour was also open to the public and took place at Stalford Seed Farms on August 18. The tour was given by Gian Mercurio of Stalford Seed Farms and was followed by a dinner prepared from locally sourced beans, grains, and produce with beer provided by A2R Farms and music by Skinner City of Eugene. (Read more and see photos from tour.)

Grain Display Stone Ground Flour

OVERVIEW OF BEAN AND GRAIN PROJECT: Over the course of the last three years, the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project has evolved from two farms, Sunbow Farm and Stalford Seed Farms, and a collection of food advocates into a valley-wide forum on the transition of agriculture in the Willamette Valley. This forum has drawn as many as fifty farms into active discussion and at least twelve farms into bean and/or grain production. Throughout this three-year period, the project's mission has remained the same: promoting the increased production of food crops in the Willamette Valley–with an emphasis on staple crops grown with organic and/or sustainable and socially conscious farming practices. Ultimately this process aims to bring about the rebuilding of our regional food system and the infrastructure and job base to support it, while at the same time increasing local food security, strengthening community around the issue of affordable, healthy, and nutritionally dense food, and creating a body of knowledge about growing a wide variety of organic staple crops specific to the weather and soil conditions of the Willamette Valley.

There are currently three large farms that are now integral parts of the Bean and Grain Project: Stalford Seed Farms, Hunton Family Farm, and A2R Farms. All together, these three farms cover approximately 13,000 acres of western Oregon farmland that at one time was almost entirely dedicated to grass seed production. Now the owners of these farms are well into the exploration of organic food production and processing with a focus on beans and grains. In total, they are transitioning more than 800 acres of grass seed acreage to organic farmland.

Organic and Transitional Crops Planted in 2010
Stalford Seed Farms A2R Farms Hunton Family Farm
35 acres organic red wheat 115 acres transitional red wheat 38.5 acres transitional red wheat (two varieties)
20 acres organic hulless oats 61 acres transitional hulless oats 5 acres transitional brown teff
20 acres organic malting barley 82 acres transitional cayuse oats 10 acres transitional lentils (two varieties)
30 acres organic brown flax 145 acres transitional white wheat 12 acres transitional grabanzo beans
15 acres organic pinto beans 45 acres transitional brown flax 5 acres transitional orca beans
30 acres organic garbanzo beans 5 acres transitional garbanzo beans 5 acres transitional black turtle beans
5 acres organic bean test plots 2 acres transitional yellow eye beans 6 acres transtional pinto beans
135 acres transitional crops 2 acres transitional pinto beans
1 acre transitional sunflowers
Total: 155 acres organic, 135 acres in transition Total: 458 acres in transition Total: 81.5 acres in transition

In addition to these three larger farms, there is also a solid collection of smaller farms that are similarly invested in the growing of beans and grains. Harry MacCormack's Sunbow Farm stands out as the initial source of inspiration for the project. Along with being a working market garden farm, Sunbow provides a testing ground for a wide array of bean and grain varieties. Lonesome Whistle Farm in Santa Clara and Open Oak Farm outside Crawfordsville, which both provide bean and grain CSAs, are also growing a wide variety of beans and grains–and producing seed with a studied effort to diversify and acclimatize as many varieties to the region as they can. This is as critical to the success of the project as the large-scale production on the bigger farms.

Other Willamette Valley farms engaged in the Bean and Grain Project are Horseshoe Lake Farm, Gordon Farms, Shekina Ridge Farm, and Allan Dong in Elmira.

What once seemed like feeling our way in the dark has now become a solid body of individuals amassing knowledge about the organic and transitional cultivation of beans and grains on several different pieces of ground in the south valley. That said, this "giant experiment" has come with both successes and disappointments. The harvest for 2010 is not quite done and (as of this September 20 writing) rain has become an issue—so clearly the education will continue as this year's harvest advances.

A brief summary of observations made during the 2010 growing season are listed below:

GRAINS

1. Several farms are growing substantial acres of organic or transitional hard red wheat this year, meaning spring wheat is getting a full test in 2010. To date, the hard red wheat has been the most successful of the new organic crops, both in growing and in marketing.

2. With the unusually cool and wet spring (the third wettest May and second wettest June on record), stripe rust was a problem in many parts of the valley during the 2010 growing season. It was evident in some of the grass seed fields, some of the white winter wheat, and some of the hard red spring wheat. Fortunately, the stripe rust didn't last long. Once the hot weather arrived in late June, the fungus died off, and the impact was, for the most part, minimal.

3. Conventional wheat prices have been steadily climbing since the middle of the summer due to drought conditions and fires in Russia and modest harvests from several of the European Union wheat producers. Though conventionally grown white winter wheat is not a focus for the bean and grain project, it is food production, and higher prices ($7.33 a bushel on September 20) will provide a boost to Willamette Valley wheat growers. Winter wheat acreage in the Willamette Valley was up again this year at an estimated total of 200,000 acres–from a low of 25,000 in 2006.

4. The market for gluten-free grains is on the rise. Because of this, hulless oats were planted in significant acreages on several of the larger farms. Flax, rye, dry corn varieties, and buckwheat are also being grown by several bean and grain farmers and can be part of the rotational scheme.

5. The size of the local hard red wheat market is still an unknown. At this point the demand has not fully been answered by the supply, but with things going as they are this year, we could begin to give the market a good test in the next few years. (A recent local food market analysis out of the University of Oregon reported that the overall amount of wheat used in Lane County during 2007 was 48 million pounds. That translates into approximately 13,500 acres at 60 bushels an acre. These figures refer to just Lane County and to both hard and soft wheat varieites.)

6. Management of the local grain market will be an increasingly important part of the Bean and Grain Project forum. Because this market is so new, the exact cost of production is still an unknown. As the price of the commodities produced will be a function of the cost of their production, fair market prices remain fluid. The creation of a grain cooperative is likely to be part of the continuing Bean and Grain Project discussion.

BEANS

1. Growing dry-land beans in the Willamette Valley has been one of the central facets of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project since the beginning. What was once only being explored at Sunbow Farm, Stalford Seed Farms, Al Dong's farm in Elmira, and a few other small organic farms in the valley is now happening at many more farms and on a much larger number of acres in 2010. Though the results continue to be mixed for dry beans, there have been enough successes and enough lessons learned that bean cultivation in the valley remains an important and ongoing experiment.

2. In general, beans crops in the valley were not irrigated or were watered minimally. On some lower portions of ground, like at Sunbow Farm, where no irrigation was used, the beans thrived. This is not universally the case in the valley. Evaluation of valley micro-climates, moisture levels, and soil types for bean varieties is clearly part of the process. In some locations, early irrigation may be helpful in getting the bean plants established, perhaps even getting enough of a canopy of leaves to help minimize weeds.

3. Many bean varieties are being grown by farmers taking part in the Bean and Grain Project forum. Garbanzo beans, pinto beans, orca beans, yellow eye beans, cannellini white beans, black turtle beans, and several varieties of lentils are getting the most attention. However, a wide variety of heirloom beans and other varieties are being explored at Lonesome Whistle Farm, Sunbow Farm, and Open Oak Farm.

4. Garbanzo beans have proven to be one the most hearty of the beans varieties tried so far. Several test plots of garbanzo beans were planted in late March and early April this year. All maintained quite well through a cold and wet spring. May first is probably a better planting target for garbanzos. This will give them plenty of time to dry in the field by September 1. Pound for pound, in three years, garbanzo beans have shown the most promise. Slugs or cucumber beetles have little interest in them and they can weather the cooler temperatures. In this last wet spring, however, there was at least one incident of root rust and plant death.

5. With some exceptions, the big leaf varieties of dry-land beans struggled with this years' cold spring. A planting date near the middle of May seems to be optimal, while still leaving 100 plus days before September 1.

6. Lentils showed some success this year and some capacity to withstand the cooler weather.

7. So far the local demand for dry beans has not been met by growers. In the scheme of things, local organic dry beans are like gold in the south Willamette Valley market. Part of this is because dry bean production is still quite new to valley farmers and yields have not yet been consistent.

8. To date, the beans have shown considerable more risk than the wheat. The education continues and the learning curve is steep.

INFRASTRUCTURE

1. The creation of a working regional food system has always been one of the foundational premises of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. Infrastructure additions since 2008 have been significant. There are now four organic seed cleaning facilities in the valley that can be used for both beans and grains. They are at A2R Farms, Stalford Seed Farm, the Hunton Family Farm, and at Glen Grell's farm. There are also two organic grain mills in the south valley. Stalford Seed Farms has one in operation right now in Brownsville. It will eventually include gluten-free milling. And the Hunton Family Farm will soon have an organic stone ground mill down the street from their farm on Purkerson Road.

2. Grain storage still must be addressed. If grains, particularly conventional and organic wheat, are to be successful in the Willamette Valley, quality long-term grain storage will be necessary. It allows the farmer more flexibility when selling their grain on the global market, and it will be important for all milling operations to have one and perhaps two years' worth of grain on hand to weather up and down years of wheat production.

3. Grain storage could be on-farm storage or a private storage operation.

4. With the increased interest in oats, particularly hulless oats, because they are gluten-free, an oat rolling facility would be an important addition to local grain processing.

SEEDS

1. Adapted seeds are a critical part of this work, especially with the beans—specifically finding short-season beans that can be planted by May 15 and be dry in the field by September 1. The Seed Ambassadors out of Eugene have been at this several years now and now have a seed company, Adaptive Seeds, operating out of Open Oak Farm just south of Crawfordsville. Lonesome Whistle Farm in Santa Clara is also engaged in bean and grain seed saving and sale.

2. All local farmers should become familiar with seed savings techniques and the work being done at Open Oak Farm, Sunbow Farm, and Lonesome Whistle Farm.

WEEDS, WEATHER, AND COMMUNICATION

1. Weeds were a problem again with organic beans and grains. (The photos from the farm tours make this obvious.) For wheat and other grains, close planting can help with the weeds, but the beans are a different story. Cultivation of the bean fields became an accepted practice this year, and some hand weeding was necessary both for the beans and the wheat. There is yet a lot to learn regarding tilling practices and minimizing weed pressure.

2. The vicissitudes of western Oregon springs and concerns for moisture in the fields during harvest are the biggest risks for dry beans, and the 2010 growing season was a real test. Arguably this was the toughest year for growing beans since the beginning of the project. Perhaps, staggered plantings, when possible, might help with this. Also continued seed acclimatization should count for a lot, especially for finding short-season beans. Early results suggest that dry-land bean planting, with the exception of garbanzos, before May 1 is very risky. But planting by May 15, variety dependent, seems to be early enough to harvest by September 1. Harvesting after September 1 is tempting the whim of the weather gods–as shown by the early rain this year.

3. Weather is also a major factor in planting times. Despite all intentions, this year's efforts to get beans and/or grains in early were often thwarted by spring rains and the ground being too wet for heavy equipment. Clearly this is not an issue for small homestead farms where hand-planting is possible.

4. Accumulating a base of knowledge for growing beans and grains and sharing that information is an integral part of the Bean and Grain Project forum. While the practice of farmers keeping their business close to the vest has been long-standing in this valley, in this time of transition, open communication between farmers is important.

THE CULINARY ARTS

1. As an aside to the bakers and chefs farm tour, it is worth noting that the culinary arts offer more than just good tasting food. Smart cooking with a variety of grains and beans is a great way of getting more eating and nutrition for the dollar. Thoughtful use of local beans and grains can transfrom food insecurity into food bounty with just the right ingredients and a stir of a spoon.

As always, feedback to this webpage is welcome. If you attended any of the tours, feel free to offer corrections or additions. In the end, the Bean and Grain Project meetings, farm tours, and these articles are meant as a forum about growing beans, grains, and edible seeds as field crops in the Willamette Valley. Discussion and the sharing of ideas are themes central to the project. Click to email.

Special thanks is extended to The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and The Ten Rivers Food Web, Hummingbird Wholesale and the Evergreen Hill Fund of Oregon Community Foundation for their continued support of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. Also thanks to Erik Silverberg for photos of the tour and Tom Hunton for photos from his farm.

Prairie Fire

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