Local foodies want heirloom grains part of local agriculture culture
Next time you visit the Forest Grove Farmers Market, stop at Dave and Meredith Ferrier's booth and step back in time.
The Ferriers are dedicated to "the old way of making bread." They bake baguettes, ciabatta and French-style sourdough loaves using levain, a naturally fermented mixture of flour and water.
According to Ferrier, that's what most bread bakers used before the mid-1800s brought the development of commercial yeast, prized for its efficiency, uniformity and consistent results — but lacking in the multi-dimensional flavor and nutrition of levain made from heirloom grains (old varieties that have been saved for generations for their unique qualities).
To make their levain, the Ferriers use heirloom grains that are ground into flour at a mill in Eugene, but they'd like to get their ingredients closer to home.
That's where Charlene Murdock comes in.
Murdock also uses specialty grains and levain to create bread she sells at the market. But she's got a bigger goal than bread sales. Murdock dreams of Forest Grove fields teeming with heirloom grains that are harvested and funneled into the hands, kitchens and stills of local brewers and bakers.
She and her husband, Richard White, run Forest Grove urban farm Nana Cardoon and have started Tualatin Plains Grain Culture.
The couple aims to recruit nearby farmers to invest land and time into growing nutritious and flavorful grains such as Red Fife wheat and rye — and to connect them with local buyers willing to pay for specialty goods, creating an independent western Washington County food system.
That dream recently got a boost when Murdock got a $2,150 Community Enhancement Program grant for a desk-sized mill that could grind those local specialty grains into flour.
CEP money will become available to Murdock and others July 1.
From Forest Grove soil
Currently, much of the commercial wheat grown on local farmland is shipped across the country and even overseas.
Forest Grove farmer Lyle Spiesschaert, for example, grows acres of soft white winter wheat, which he sells to a broker in Portland who ships it east to make pasta. But this year, he's growing a small patch of Red Fife wheat and rye as an experiment.
Spiesschaert estimates he'll harvest about one ton of Red Fife wheat per acre while his adjacent field of soft, white wheat — grown with chemical fertilizers and herbicides — will yield about four tons per acre.
But he has long wanted to grow sustainable, healthy grains, something he "can sell over the fence" without the chemicals he currently uses on his more commercial crops.
Spiesschaert is not only interested in the genetics and qualities of varying plants, but also hopes growing crops for local people will help bridge the ever-growing divide between urban and rural residents.
If urban residents appreciate food that's produced locally, he said, they might be more understanding when they have to wait behind slow farm equipment on the road or when neighbors encounter dust from his plows. And they may be more interested in preserving local farmland.
Ferrier agrees. "I think people take ownership of the place they live when they see how that place provides for them," he said. "When they can see that their bread comes from Forest Grove soil, I think they'll want to protect this place more."
Murdock is also hoping the grains project — and her new mill — will help foster a sense of community between local artisans and farmers. The mill's permanent home would be at Nana Cardoon but local bakers and other members of the local Tualatin Plains Grain Culture could use it.
In addition, Ferrier likes the idea of a more environmentally friendly bread using grain and flour that was shipped from two miles away rather than from the other side of the state or country.
Local makes sense
That's why Ferrier plans to head to Spiesschaert's Thatcher Road farm this summer and help weed about four acres of Red Fife wheat and rye, along with Murdock, White and a posse of other local-grain believers so Spiesschaert won't need to use herbicides.
Growing heritage grains with organic chicken manure, hand-weeding the plots and selling the harvest to local craftsmen willing to pay a little higher price would be ideal.
But it would be tough to recruit volunteers each year willing to hand-weed the approximately 300 acres he farms, mixing crops between wheat, clover and grass for seed and hay.
And after years of traditional farming with sprays and chemicals, it'll likely take the soil years to balance out again, Spiesschaert said, as soil is a living organism with bacteria, worms, nutrients and water that's been controlled by artificial means season after season.
Spiesschaert said he's produced a lot of food with traditional farming methods, "but I'm interested in more of a balance."
Many crops designed to produce mass quantities hold up well during transportation across the country and world, Spiesschaert said, but they're not grown for quality, taste and nutritional value.
Specialty grains seems to be working for Murdock and Ferrier, who consistently sell out.
"Every week I'm baking more bread than ever before," Ferrier said. "Every week people are saying, 'oh, we're so glad you're here,' so I think I've tapped into a market."
After Spiesschart's grains are harvested, Ferrier will experiment with using them in his breads, seeing how they taste and if the price point is working.
The grains project has also caught the attention of Adam Zumwalt of Forest Grove's Waltz Brewing. He currently purchases grains from all over the region to make his beers and would be willing to pay a similar price or perhaps even a little more for locally grown crops. "Local makes more sense," he said. "You can put your money into farms and not have to ship it across the country or world. There would be more control, more quality and more visibility."
Zumwalt hopes to use some of Spiesschart's rye in a seasonal beer that would likely be ready sometime in September.
Specialty grains grown in Forest Grove might not be able to feed the world, but they could feed the town, Spiesschaert said. "I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it had a place in the future. I'm excited to be a part of it."