By Chris Peterson

When you get chefs and bakers together to tour farms and see ingredients they aren’t used to getting locally, ideas flow like butter on hot corn on the cob. They discuss texture, pairings, and seasonings as they taste things like green garbanzos in the middle of a field, hummus under the shade of a tree or taste pastries made with freshly-ground local wheat.

On August 2nd, dozens of Willamette Valley bakers and chefs spent the afternoon touring Stalford Farm near Tangent, A2R Farms south of Corvallis and Hunton Farms south of Junction City. The event was hosted by the Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project, a coalition of farmers, businesses, community organizers and representatives of two non-profits: Ten Rivers Food Web and Willamette Farm and Food.

The idea for the tour was born from an experience Harry MacCormack had in Germany a few years ago. There, restaurateurs and growers meet for two days to talk about what’s working and what’s not, and what both would like to see happen in the following year.

Stalford Seed Farms

The tour started at Stalford Seed Farms where Gian Mercurio spoke for the family who got the whole local-staples-for-local-consumption ball rolling about five years ago by transitioning some of their grass seed acres to organic foods. Gian and her daughter, Willow Coberly, co-owner of the farm with her husband, Harry Stalford, wanted to complement the wonderful array of fresh foods available in the Valley with staples such as grains, dried beans and edible seeds. “People can grow most of their own produce themselves,” Gian said, “but not all their staples, like grains and beans.”

Research and their first experimental crops launched Stalford’s on a venture that has been challenging and rewarding. The first hard red wheat crop, for instance, was dismal, yet promising. They harvested less than they planted but, rather than give up, they declared it acclimated seed and planted it the following spring. They were right; yield has steadily increased. While a few crops, especially beans, failed entirely, failures teach more than the successes. Weather has been the main reason crops fail – too wet when it’s time to plant, the rainy season starts before the crop is ready to harvest or the summer is too hot or cool for non-irrigated crops.

While some would consider not irrigating beans a drawback, there actually are advantages, Gian explained. Non-irrigated beans tend keep better and require less soaking. Hence, they are sought out by professional and home chefs in-the-know. This year Stalford’s is growing several types of beans:  Hidatsa red, anazai-like, black,  garbanzo and pinto.

Yields of most crops have increased and each year they try new methods and crops. (When Gian mentioned they hope to grow farro and Emmer wheat next, she got a very enthusiastic response from the chefs.) Native plants are used to attract beneficial bugs and the soil is fed compost and cover crops.

This year Stalfords built a small mill in Brownsville and soon found it hard to keep up with demand. A larger mill is in the works, producing Greenwillow Grains flour for Willamette Valley bakers and cooks.

Besides bringing new foods to local markets, the Stalford crew is proud that they offer more than minimum wage, plus benefits, to all of their employees, including the students who work there during summer.
The organic crops have brought three generations together in the various aspects of the work. Besides mother/daughter, husband/wife, Willow’s children are involved. Eldest son, Christopher, is in charge of the organic field crew and her school-age son and daughter help out in the summer. Willow’s aunt Mary Ann is in charge of the compost operation as well as the milling and marketing.

A2R Farms

Mike Robinson and his son, Clinton Lindsey, were inspired by Willow Coberly and Harry MacCormack (owner of Sunbow Farm, Ten Rivers Food Web board member and SWVB&G Project organizer) to transition some of their 800 acres from grass seed to food crops. Grass seed had been Robinson’s primary crop for years, but the dive in the market left them with piles of unsold seed and their bank calling in the loan.

One of the “beauties” of this tour is we got to see weeds at every farm. Sometimes they can be overcome by just-in-time tilling before planting or the crop may outgrow them, but they will always be a part of organic farming to some extent. Actually, it’s reassuring to see them because it reminds you the crops have not been doused in pesticides.

While A2R has grown grains before (soft white wheat and oats, mainly), the overall change from grass to food crops was illustrated in a hand-out for the bakers and chefs. They’re growing about one-third the amount of grass seed as before and food crops have bumped up considerably. In 2009, they grew five crops on about 1,300 acres (some leased). This year it’s thirteen crops on over 800 acres, plus 34 acres fallow, in anticipation of transitioning them to organic crops in the next two years.

The fact that some crops are doing very well and others may have no yield supports the wisdom in their decision to diversify while they figure out markets, equipment needs (for growing and processing), soil needs, etc. The grass seed cleaning equipment Robinson had installed just a few years ago will be an asset in cleaning most of the new crops – and it’s been certified for organic processing.

Read about all of the crops and see Clint’s photos at: http://corvallisfarmer.blogspot.com. Then, check back later to learn about harvest yields and plans already germinating for next year.

As with every farmer, next year’s crops are in Robinson’s and Lindsey’s heads every time they visit the fields and take lessons from this year’s successes and failures. Like Stalford’s beans last year, some of A2R’s are not very promising, due mostly to weather and equipment.

Having potential customers visit them in person is as rewarding for the farmers as it is the chefs and bakers so everyone, whether they wear work boots or aprons, was inspired by this tour.

Hunton’s Family Farm

The last stop on the tour was Hunton’s Family Farm, south of Junction City. Tom and his sons work land that has been farmed by Tom’s parents since the 1950s. Tom took the visitors about the farm with his tractor hauling a bale-loaded flatbed while son Jason drove his grandfather’s beautifully restored 1952 Ford truck outfitted with a flatbed and bales too. Stops were made along the way for the visitors to jump off and see crops up close, do some raw tasting and hear about the challenges and successes (or not) of each. Hunton’s still grows some grass seed, just like the other two farms, but is also transitioning acres to staple food crops. Tom, too, has grown grains in the past, but has added a variety of drying beans, lentils, and teff (an Ethiopian grass said to yield the smallest edible seeds), which is gaining popularity here. He also has a small niger thistle seed crop for bird seed.

Tom is the epitome of the soft-spoken, self-deprecating farmer, which belies his degree in agricultural science from Cal-Poly and decades as a highly-regarded Willamette Valley farmer. As he said later in the evening, the farmers involved in this Bean and Grain Project are brave in taking all the risks in growing these long-neglected crops, but all are excited about the potential, as well. One of their biggest challenges is the lack of infrastructure for both processing and distributing the crops locally. But it looks like consumer response will be strong enough to help surmount those problems. Some are being solved by the farmers themselves, installing their own cleaning equipment and flour mills. The Huntons had just received parts of their new mill from Denmark, which they plan to have in operation by fall. Later that evening, when telling me about the history of the farm buildings, Tom showed me the grain shed where grains were unloaded with chutes into a hole in the floor and carried up to the top of the building by a pulley/scoop system on a big wooden wheel and into silos on either side of the building (no longer there). When he was recently cleaning out the building he came across the metal burrs his father had used to grind grain decades ago. He said it made him feel he’s coming full circle by installing his own grain mill.

After a steady diet of fascinating crop information and impressive farm vistas all afternoon, the group settled down to an outstanding local meal prepared by Adam’s Sustainable Table of Eugene with ingredients donated from farmers, ranchers and dairies throughout the Valley. The setting was equally perfect – the big, tree-shaded yard by the Hunton farmhouse, beside a huge pond Tom built between the house and fields. His wife, Sue, was hostess extraordinaire, preparing tables and refreshments before and after the tour and gracing the tables with beautiful flowers from her extensive gardens. Tom’s mother, an integral part of the farm and business since they moved here from Harrisburg in the 1950s, was on hand to hear some of the bakers and chefs join in the praises of the tour, the farmers and comments on what they see as the future of local foods.

To all on the tour, the future for these innovative farmers looks very promising.

Comments by some of the participants:

Clive Wanstall, culinary instructor at Lane Community College likened what’s happening with local foods to what recycling was like when he first arrived at the school in the early 1990s and asked where the compost buckets were. Not only were there none back then, he was told they would be “unsanitary” in a kitchen. If he wanted one he’d have to keep it outdoors. Today, LCC has a well-paid position devoted to recycling and composting and are proud of this progressive department.

Scottie Hurley, culinary instructor at Linn-Benton Community College said after this tour—and with the projects he’s involved in with Ten Rivers Food Web and the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition—he feels a great weight on his shoulders when he goes to his job. He often has to buck a well-established “system”, but sees hope walking out the door with each graduate of the culinary program so does all he can to instill in them the virtues of fresh, local foods.

Kathy Whims, executive chef/owner of Nostrana Restaurant in Portland, chose the Italian name because it indicates “ours” and pride of local. Over her years as a chef she has come to realize that it isn’t the recipe that makes great food, it’s the ingredients. The fresher they are, the better the food. Hence, she cultivates strong relationships with local farmers. She’s excited about all the “new” local foods represented in this tour.

Julie Fitzgerald, owner of what she calls her “nano bakery,” Bread of Angels in Sweet Home, said the real cost of non-organic foods are hidden from us. She added that what determines the product success is the process. That would include the care taken in each step by the farmer to the food preparer.

Pat Daniels, co-owner of Cottage Grove Farmhouse Bakery, who grinds all of the grains that they buy from local growers, said maybe a number of small bakeries, such as hers and those represented on the tour, really can make a difference. She expressed gratitude to the farmers for making the ingredients available to them.