Across the country, farmers are putting grains in ground that haven’t seen a flour mill or malthouse for nearly a century. Researchers like Jones are working to help farmers find varieties that grow well in these areas, and also serve the needs of bakers and brewers. Conferences on grains and bread–like the Kneading Conference West, which Jones helps organize–are driving the movement forward.
“If you look at Iowa, this is what’s wrong with agriculture,” he said in Vermont in March, showing a 2008 USDA map that highlighted wheat production with green dots. The state was nearly white. “One hundred years ago, Iowa would be bright green. Now it’s wall to wall corn and soybeans. Winter wheat avoids drought. Corn and soy do not.”
The Northern Grain Growers Association had invited him to speak on the topic of growing grains “out of place,” or beyond the regions where the commodity crop is generally produced–eastern Washington and Oregon, Montana, the Dakotas, and Kansas. Jones gave a similar presentation in Tacoma at the Cascadia Grains Conference in January.
In the last century, same as other parts of our food supply, grain production was centralized. A staple food became a commodity crop, and the farmer know-how, and equipment needed to grow grains regionally was lost.
The research station builds on what farmers in the Skagit Valley and elsewhere in western Washington do know–how to grow commodity grains–with a goal of creating a closed loop system to meet the needs of farms and eaters in a region, from animal feed to flour and malting barley.
“These aren’t wheat farmers, these are farmers who grow wheat,” Jones said at his office and labs. Wheat farmers in eastern Washington grow large acres of commodity grains and little else. Farmers in his part of the state can’t afford to grow grains as their main crop. The land is too valuable, and the income from wheat is too low. Still, every few years, tulip, vegetable and seed farmers grow grains to break disease cycles and build up organic matter in the soil.
Growing the same plants year after year courts pathogens and pests. Grains are in the grass family, offering a break from the problems invited by other families of plants. Each family has different biological foes, so rotations help plants handle problems like funguses and bugs. Grains also add organic matter to the soil. Adding value to the grains farmers grow in rotation boosts farm economies as well as soil. Keeping those grains at home is key to Jones for many reasons, and not just because local food is in right now.
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