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Re-Decentralization of small grains in NW

Small grains

By Stephen Jones

When I interviewed in the fall of 2008 for my current position at WSU Mount Vernon in the Skagit Valley, I assumed I was leaving wheat behind, and would soon be busy breeding open pollinated cabbage or leafy greens. Even the Mount Vernon off-ramp of I-5 featured an old grain mill converted into an Italian restaurant. 

But I was wrong. Even before I started work, I was getting phone calls from bakers from Seattle to southwest Oregon asking for local organic wheat, and from farmers from Northern California to Alaska asking what varieties to grow on their small to mid-sized farms. 

I was about to leave my commodity wheat breeding position to move to an agricultural area dominated by small, diverse farms. It became clear that not only did small grains have a historical and critical role in these agricultural systems, but the demand of local grains was on an upward path.

Coastal Oregon and Washington have both large populations and highly productive agricultural lands. They also have high percentages of consumers and producers interested in organic food. So far, growers and processors have focused on high-value fruits and vegetables. Now they’re interested in small grains.

Wheat, barley and oats have traditionally been viewed as low-value commodity crops. But they are an important part of the system in terms of breaking disease cycles, providing valuable hay, straw and organic matter, and in offering new market opportunities.

Today people are asking for regional (west of the Cascades) organic grains for everything from chicken and hog feed, beer and whiskey, to bread, pizza crust and cookies.

The lack of a vibrant local organic feed, malt, and small-grain-based food system in coastal Oregon, Washington, and Alaska is in stark contrast to the high demand and enthusiasm of growers, processors, and consumers for local food. This is a region of about six million people, many of whom care deeply about the source of their food and about keeping farming in their communities in the face of urban encroachment.

Where are these foodstuffs coming from now? Central Canada, the Midwest, and beyond. Even if “beyond” is in the same state, such as eastern Oregon or Washington, it is still too far away to meet the needs and wants of truly local food systems. In addition both eastern Oregon and Washington have been slow to convert acres to organic grain production, instead in some cases to opt for no-til; a more chemically intensive system. 

Ironically, our region was at one time more than self-sufficient in grain production. In fact, grain grown here was exported to the large urban centers along the coast as far south as San Francisco. At the turn of the last century Skagit Valley, for example, was covered with oats to feed the horses in the cities. The San Juan Islands grew grain for bakeries throughout the Puget Sound. Every town had a grain elevator and many had mills.

But in the past two generations, farming communities have lost the capacity, infrastructure, and memory of how to grow, market, and process these crops. Mills in many communities were either torn down or, like the one near my home, turned into tourist attractions.

Meanwhile many farming systems in coastal Oregon and Washington have lost diversity and animal integration for a variety of reasons. It reflects to a lesser degree what has taken place in agriculture throughout much of the United States. Here, while the growers are still willing to farm a variety of crops, they don’t have the processors or distributors that were once in place. They also lack critical infrastructure such as storage and driers. 

Our research involves organic growers from Northern California to Alaska, including British Columbia. We are assisting them by investigating and identifying the most suitable crop varieties for the region, exploring affordable and effective processing technologies, and calculating costs of production and processing. 

Research projects at WSU-Mount Vernon involving our Organic Wheat Breeding program and the Winter Barley Breeding Program run by Pat Hayes at Oregon State University are not just showing promising results in yield, but also in quality.

Bakers say the local organic whole wheat bakes well and some note “a hint of spice with chocolaty overtones.” These descriptors are more commonly used in wine than in wheats that come from other regions and tend to lack flavor. We’re striving for not only regional production, but also regional flavors, textures and attributes – a sort of terroir for wheat and our other small grains.

We’re striving for not only regional production, but also regional flavors, textures and attributes – a sort of terroir for wheat and our other small grains.

In a similar fashion, small batch distilleries are testing ryes and wheats for alcohol yield and flavor, and brewers are sampling local malting barleys. 

Southwestern Oregon, which has more local bakers than grain growers, is leading the way in reintroducing local grains. This year Maud Powell and Shelley Elkovich, with the OSU Small Farms program, ran a series of small grains workshops involving cultural practices, equipment and end use qualities. These types of workshops are also taking place in Western Washington, Maine, Vermont, North Carolina and other regions that have lost their small grains traditions. 

This movement is not merely a trend, and it is not just taking place in the Northwest. A long-time, small organic mill owner in northern Washington wants to expand, but storage in the region is inadequate. Organic mills in Canada are supplying most of the organic wheat flour and feeds used in the Pacific Northwest. A feed supplier for urban chickens is being asked that the organic grains that they use come from within less than 100 miles. The demand for organic malt is far greater than local supplies. Growers throughout the region need varietal performance data and access to seed, processors need high quality barley and wheat, and both groups need help to make decisions about investing in necessary infrastructure.

So how do we start? Many growers are testing small batches of new and older varieties to see what works best on their acres and what types of qualities the end-users are asking for. The knowledge of how to grow small grains organically on small farms is well documented in bulletins produced by the USDA and other organizations 100 years ago, up to the mid-1940s. These bulletins cover everything from manuring, variety choice, increasing protein for bread baking, disease management, seeding rate and equipment usage. Much of the information is clear and relevant. We’ve unearthed these bulletins from dusty storage rooms and library basements and posted them on our web site (

Our search continues, and more publications will follow. Also, please watch for workshops in your area*. It’s a great opportunity for experienced grain growers and people who are just starting out to meet and share information. 

Traditionally grains played a key role in Northwest farming systems. Working together in a decentralized effort with growers, bakers, maltsters, millers, and others we see the small grains coming back into rotations. The result will be stronger more diverse agricultural systems further removed from the tentacles of commodity crop agriculture.

Stephen Jones is the Director/Plant Breeder at the Washington State University-Mount Vernon.


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