Building a New Food System Through Innovative Collaboration
21 November 2009 /?php comments_number('No Comment', 'One Comment', '% Comments' );?>
Julie Tilt and Clint Lindsey have jobs that involve canyons of stacked bags and boxes. Forklifts often hum in the background. Their livelihoods are directly dependent upon the soil, but their businesses are very different. Hers is contained within the walls of a metal warehouse in a small city. Her workspace is measured in feet. His workspace is 40 miles away, measured in acres. He spends as much time between soil and sky as she does at a computer. She distributes natural foods throughout the Pacific Northwest. He’s a grass seed farmer, his product going around the world.
Until recently, Tilt and Lindsey had no reason to meet. But, tough times create unlikely partnerships. Theirs is one. Lindsey’s bank started legal proceedings to take possession of farm assets when his grass seed crop didn’t sell and he fell behind on loan repayments. Tilt attended the hearing to testify on his behalf, confirming that they were partnering in a plan that Lindsey’s family had written for the farm. If successful, the farm will change course and, at the same time, will help Tilt fulfill the mission of her business and bring to fruition a business model some scoff at as idealistic.
It’s a risky venture with no guarantees for either of them.
Lindsey’s story starts a generation ago when his father, Mike Robinson, moved as a child from Canada to western Oregon with his parents. The family bought land south of Philomath and started farming. Later, as an adult, Robinson was hired to manage the nearby farm of a family friend. When the friends retired, he bought their farm, named it A2R Farms and, in 2004, set up a seed cleaning and storage facility on it. At the time, he was farming almost 1,500 acres, which included leased land. He has since scaled back to just over 650 acres, over 85% of which has been in grass seed. The rest was in wheat and oats.
Why, city folk wonder, is over half of the Willamette Valley’s crop land devoted to grass seed? Lindsey explains that ideal climate and soil type are key. Grass seed is planted in fall, thrives in western Oregon’s mild wet winters, then is harvested in summer. No irrigation is required. For years the market was stable, bringing a decent price. So, farmers became experts at growing and processing grass seed. Although many grass seed growers also grow some grains as rotation crops, grains are trickier to grow in this climate and their markets have historically paid far less than grass seed.
In 2003, Julie and Charlie Tilt bought Honey Heaven, an established wholesale business in Eugene, and changed its name to Hummingbird Wholesale in 2007 to reflect the broader versatility they brought to it, as well as its gentle impact on the environment. They strive to buy their products locally, and directly from the farmer whenever possible. In fact, they are so committed to localizing the food they distribute that, more than once, they’ve shared risk with farmers by investing in a crop before it’s planted or harvested. It’s a business model you rarely see but one they are willing to practice when possible to fulfill the mission and vision of their business (www.hummingbirdwholesale.com).
Hummingbird distributes mostly organically-grown natural foods throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The grass seed industry has been one of the big dominoes to fall in the economic crisis. It has left countless farms just like A2R with warehouses full of unsold seed. Banks once happy to make loans for seed and equipment have locked their vaults.
Lindsey has worked on his father’s farm seasonally for 10 years, and full-time for the last season. When he started assuming more of the administrative responsibilities, grass seed prices were becoming more volatile. He and his father had long talked about growing more food crops but, because of the investments in seed cleaning and storage, weren’t compelled to change until the grass seed market began to tank two years ago.
Lindsey’s research into alternative crops led him to fellow Valley grass seed grower, Harry Stalford, whose wife, Willow Coberly, had not only researched food crops, but was growing grains and beans for local markets. She was part of a newly-organized group of farmers and individuals involved with the emerging local foods movement called the Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project. Ten Rivers Food Web is a partner in the Project. The group’s goal is to find and help farmers willing to transition to food crops for local distribution and consumption, and thus strengthen food security for consumers and job security for farmers. (See “Farmer Meetings Mull Progress of Local Bean & Grain Growing” by Carla Wise on this website)
Tilt is a member of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project.
Less than three months after meeting, Tilt found herself in a hearing at the new Federal Court House in Eugene in front of A2R’s bank representatives. Lindsey and Robinson had worked out a plan to transition to more stable food crops. Tilt came to verify that Hummingbird had agreed to help sell the crops.
“It was the strangest environment to be discussing farming,” Tilt said. “The new Federal Court House feels like a space ship, and they were up against three lawyers, a judge and an accountant from the bank, all in suits and ties.”
This was but a first step in the process of convincing the bank their investment in the farm would pay off and it was encouraging. The next hearing is in December.
Why would Tilt be willing to testify for someone she’s just getting to know? “We cannot afford to lose these kinds of people,” she said. “They already have the skills and experience of farming. Those of us who have never farmed have no idea of what it takes. Over the last seven years, I’ve been buying crops directly from farmers and have had a glimpse of their reality. It’s been quite eye-opening for me. Farming is risky business. There is no way to control the weather and the weather has been particularly erratic in the last ten years. Competition from the international marketplace can all of a sudden force farmers to radically drop their price, or prohibit them from growing certain crops which can be grown at a much lower cost elsewhere. That basically means that workers in other countries are paid ridiculously low wages.”
Farmers here – and internationally – have no control over the price they get for their crops, either. That’s determined by market forces well beyond their reach. For example, while the price of bread has risen steadily over the decades, farmers have seen very little increase in the price they get for the wheat it’s made from. Who is making all that profit?
The plan for A2R melds new crops with some familiar to Robinson and Lindsey. Some will be grown conventionally (with chemicals) while others will begin the transitioning process to organically-grown. The latter will be hard red and soft white wheats, drying beans (depending on spring weather) and sunflowers for seed. Thirty to sixty acres will be planted in flax for seed, making A2R the largest flax grower in the Valley. Flax was once a common crop here, used mainly to make linen before synthetic fibers became the norm. Clover, grown for seed (with the added bonus of restoring nitrogen to the soil) will be tucked in wherever it will fit. Spring-planted oats, which they’ve grown for years as a rotation crop, will be grown conventionally and be their second-largest crop behind soft white wheat. “We still plan to have some rye grass for one simple reason,” Lindsey said. “It will grow where other crops will not – in wet, marginal ground unsuitable for wheat and other potentially more valuable crops.”
The challenges for farmers transitioning to organically-grown are weeds (grass seed crops are graded according to weed seed content and priced accordingly so it’s difficult for such farmers to tolerate them), seeds (sourcing good varieties for this climate) and finding markets with good prices. Finally, cleaning the fields at the end of harvest without chemicals will be tough. “Anyone who has grown grass seed will tell you it’s extremely difficult to eradicate from a field without the use of herbicides,” Lindsey said. What was once a lucrative crop becomes a noxious weed.
The good news is that Lindsey and Robinson won’t need to reinvest in lots of new equipment. Most of the crops in A2R’s new plan can be grown and processed with existing equipment, often with the same process used for grass seed.
Fair Trade at Home
Hummingbird Wholesale, the Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project and many consumers want to see fair trade extended to our local farmers too. But collaborating directly with farms like A2R is just the first step. Much work remains to establish an efficient storage and distribution system throughout the entire Ten Rivers food shed – and in every community nationwide. The knowledge and experience of businesses like Hummingbird and A2R can help get us there by risking collaboration in such trying times.
Consumers can help the process by seeking out new opportunities to buy from local farms, either through established routes such as farmers’ markets and stores that innovative wholesalers such as Hummingbird supply, or new routes, such as collaborative CSAs, directly from the farm, or on-line purchases in newly-emerging “virtual” markets.
Challenging times create unlikely partnerships and spawn innovation. We consumers are as instrumental to the success of farms like A2R as the weather, the soil and businesses such as Hummingbird Wholesale. Our health and the health of our community depend on it.