Monday, September 21, 2009

On a happier note: Shepherds Grain flour

Severe soil erosion in a wheat field near Wash...This is why no-till agriculture is so vital -- in addition to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, it preserves the soil on which we depend. Image via Wikipedia

Used by better bakeries throughout the Northwest, including Salem's own Cascade Baking Company.

Nearly all of Washington's wheat — 85 to 90 percent — ends up in foreign countries, mostly in Asia. The state produces most of its confectionary wheat, the kind used in pastries, cakes, cookies and crackers. But wheat for bread tends to come from Montana and farther east.

Stone-Buhr now prints an ID code on each bag of flour identifying which Shepherd's Grain farms it came from. Customers can go to a Web site,, to learn more about the farmers. Some provide bits of history; others have photos, video and descriptions of their farming methods.

All Shepherd's Grain farmers are committed to no-till farming, which means they don't plow to kill weeds and aerate the soil. They plant on top of stubble from the last harvest, saving tractor fuel and giving the topsoil something to hold onto when the rains come.

On farms that have been tilled, Fleming and other farmers have seen rainstorms wash topsoil across roads and neighboring farms, right into the Spokane River nearby.

Making business fun

Few farmers are marketing their flour, according to Tom Mick, CEO of Washington Grain Commission in Spokane.

"It's a lot of work," Mick said. "It takes four or five years to establish your reputation; there's a lot of capital outlay and commitments from farmers to stick with you. There are a lot of risk factors."

Shepherd's Grain oversees the type of wheat each farmer plants and makes sure they are blended properly so the flour consistently meets bakers' specifications.

The company also has a consistent price, set each fall after the farmers calculate their costs. That means customers can count on about the same price for six months to a year, although distributors might vary how much of a cut they take.

The commodities market is less predictable. Demand grew so fast that Shepherd's Grain briefly turned away new customers about two years ago, when the flour market skyrocketed and its product suddenly looked like a deal.

Escalating flour prices contributed to the appeal of Shepherd's Grain, but so did the idea of buying locally, said Ben Davis, co-owner of Grand Central Baking, which got its start in Seattle and now has its headquarters in Portland.

Growing up, he drove wheat trucks and learned a few things about the business that make him appreciate Shepherd's Grain.

For one thing, he knows how rare it is for Washington farmers to grow the kind of wheat that bread bakeries use. Less than a quarter of Washington wheat is the hard red wheat used in bread and bagels; that type is far more plentiful in Montana and North Dakota.

Davis said he also appreciates the innovation that Shepherd's Grain farmers demonstrate by no longer tilling soil, a change that's difficult for some farmers to make.

And he said he likes knowing who grew his wheat.

"It makes doing business fun," he said, "to have lunch in their kitchen and be served apple pie by the guy's wife who sits on the tractor."

(Note that the illustration is NOT what you get in fields growing Shepherd's Grain flour.)
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