There are three of us driving down a long gravel driveway. We are just outside Shedd, Ore., in a town too small for most maps. The farmer is expecting us, though he doesn’t know we’re on a mission to restore part of the West’s agricultural past. My companions are part of a group called the Wheat Project, and our aim is to do it all: Grow wheat, mill it and sell it locally.
The Springer farm lies near the center of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s agricultural heart, where at least 170 different crops are grown. My freezer in nearby Corvallis is filled with locally grown blueberries, strawberries, corn, lamb and beef to help get my family through the winter. Farms in this valley also produce a rainbow of vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, dairy products and nuts that could easily fill out a food pyramid. Yet only about 2 percent of the food consumed in our area is produced locally, and I’m beginning to grasp why: Eating close to home is hard to do.
Take wheat. Farms around here grow lots of it. Over 10,000 acres of wheat were grown in our three-county region, according to the latest census, producing over 1 million bushels, which is about 60 million pounds. But this wheat is soft, white winter wheat, a low-protein, high-yield variety unsuited for bread making. The wheat grown here is shipped overseas to make pastries, flatbreads, and other foods.
Meanwhile, the wheat flour we use in Corvallis comes from elsewhere, perhaps passing the wheat we grow heading in opposite directions. This long-distance food system relies on oil—agriculture accounts for 17 percent of this country’s energy consumption—and four-fifths of this energy is consumed after the harvest for processing, packaging, warehousing, refrigerating and transporting our food. We want to change this equation, starting with wheat.
Mr. Springer leads us into one of his outbuildings, and inside is a grain mill, about five feet high, that he salvaged and rebuilt decades ago. For many years, he explains, he grew hard red wheat and milled it into flour. He shows us the grinding stone and the wheel you turn to adjust the fineness of the flour. We rub the slippery soft flour between our fingers. Next, he shows us the 1937 tractor he hooked up to the mill for power. You run the tractor engine real slow, he instructs, or the flour will come out too warm. Although he quit growing red wheat a few years ago, he’s got lots of flour in his freezer and cooks pancakes with it each morning.
We spend a couple of hours visiting, learning about the farm, seeing his antiques and hearing Mr. Springer’s thoughts about life and farming. He has outlived both his wife and his son, and seems to relish our company. It’s a sweet visit, and it ends too soon.
The conventional wisdom is that the wet climate in the Willamette Valley is a poor match for the hard red wheat that makes good bread flour. Experts say yields will be low, disease problems high, and getting the high protein content needed for bread flour won’t be easy. But Mr. Springer told us he never had those problems.
We made one other visit a few miles north of the Springer farm, where a family is experimenting with growing a few acres of organic red wheat. They mostly grow grass seed, but every few years they need a different crop to put into rotation. Now, they’re considering planting hard red wheat. We look at the scraggly plants in the experimental field, and it makes me think of my garden experiments, often so tenuous the first year.
The farmers are trying seed from different sources, testing the soil and adding compost. There’s a mill an hour south that may be willing to mill the wheat that’s locally produced. If so, our Corvallis food co-op has promised to buy its wheat.
Since those visits, I’ve talked about what we learned to everyone who will listen. My friends probably wonder why I’m so excited about the local food movement. When I try to explain, here’s what I come up with: Helping to build a local food system is good in every way I can count. It supports farmers and helps to protect their land from subdivision development. It reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s good for better health and greater pleasure from food. It strengthens food security by protecting against disasters large and small. Finally, it has shown me many nearby blessings in people, the land, great ideas, and of course, Mr. Springer.
Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a biologist and environmental writer in Corvallis, Ore.