Determined that, contrary to popular assumption, bread flour could indeed be grown in the Inland Northwest, a few years ago Fred Fleming ’73 and Karl Kupers ’71 started growing Terra, a new variety of hard red spring wheat developed by Washington State University wheat breeder Kim Kidwell. They named their business Columbia Plateau Producers and their flour Shepherd’s Grain.
Visualize how a small operation under the big skies of eastern Washington moves into the full-court press of deep-pocketed global business activity. Farmers talking to millers, bakers, and consumers. Convivial conversations that put loaves of bread on the table and spread the message about soil health and people health.
Benefiting from no-till and other sustainable farming practices, Terra flourishes and is helping restore soil. Certification was bestowed by the Food Alliance, a no-nonsense national organization that peels back an operation and rewards those doing it right. The Washington Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices from the Department of Ecology was granted this fall.
Currently there are 11 producers of Terra in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and eastern Oregon with 50,000 acres under cultivation, some using direct-seed methods. The farming methods matter-good flour is needed, but the soil also needs long and careful attention to be sustainable for future breakers of bread.
Many of these producers are WSU alumni. Their flour is trucked to the WSU campus, where, says Fleming, “It completes a circle of life.” A WSU-bred variety is grown by WSU alumni to be baked in WSU kitchens and fed to WSU students who will soon become . . . etc.
However, challenges remain. Size does matter, along with cost, where larger bakers are concerned, and Columbia Plateau Producers are currently small and a bit too expensive for high-volume baking.
Dennis Fiess ’64, assistant director, WSU Western Center for Risk Management Education, is a fan of these guys, but knows the dangers.
“We talk a lot about sustainable agriculture, and most of it is far from economically viable production,” he says. “This effort carries sustainable agriculture into commercial production for domestic markets.”
One of the tricks is to handle the grain without thinking of the word “commodity,” a real paradigm-buster, but still managing to sell a lot of it. “This ends at the consumer, not at the elevator,” says Fleming. Success will mean a lot of hustling in smaller markets.
One small store along Highway 2 in Airway Heights is a precious building block of the new consumer-based agriculture Shepherd’s Grain considers family. The Farmer’s Daughter Country Store and Bakery is on the south frontage road just off the flight paths of Fairchild Air Force Base. Customers include pilots and granolas, young and old. All express appreciation at finding such an oasis of healthy foods and ambience. A veritable class reunion of WSU alumni families work in the place-Tessa Wicks (’96 master’s in agribusiness), Marci Schwartz (’03 education), Trish Schwartz (’00 agriculture) are nieces of Kim Roberts (’81, ’82 architecture), proprietor.
There are huckleberries from Idaho, feed from Deer Park, apple cider from Leavenworth, carrots and other vegetables from Davenport, wine from Walla Walla, sausage from Odessa. As the daughters indicate with a flourish of the hand to the north, where the wheat fields open up, the flour and bread “comes from right over there.”
New good ideas do eventually “tip” and become the norm. This autumn, chefs and bakers from regional restaurants in Portland, Seattle, and Spokane came out to Shepherd’s Grains farms and rode combines to cut the wheat that would be in the bread they served to customers.
Want to encourage good soil practices and help save the family farm? Bake a delicious loaf of bread and enjoy good company.