It's harvest time on the Palouse, and North Idaho wheat farmer Wayne Jensen has invited me into the air-conditioned cab of his massive combine. A color-coded computer screen shows us exactly how many bushels of grain he's harvesting moment-to-moment, while an automatic leveling system keeps the cab true to the horizon even as the rest of the machine tilts against slopes that can pitch up to 50 percent. It feels as if we're riding in the coolest off-road lawnmower money can buy.
As we sail along, a tractor towing a 785-bushel bankout wagon races to our side. Jensen flips a switch and his load of now-winnowed wheat arcs across a blue autumn sky from combine to wagon in a perfectly composed postcard for industrial agriculture.
"We're combining soft white winter wheat," Jensen says as his console beeps and flashes and he steers a laser-straight line through golden stands of wheat that will most likely end up in Japan. On average, 80 percent of the wheat harvested in the Palouse region of North Idaho and eastern Washington is shipped overseas.
But Wayne Jensen, a third generation Idaho farmer, is trying something new: growing a portion of his crop for local Northwest markets through a Washington-based co-op called Shepherd's Grain.
Wheat production has become as industrialized and globalized as modern agriculture gets. As a result, advocates of local food generally throw up their hands as soon as they hit the baked goods aisle. So few small-scale wheat producers and mills are left in America that phrases like "local wheat" and "local flour" dropped out of the lexicon nearly as long ago as "rotary phone."
Earlier that day, at the Jensen's farmhouse near Genesee, his wife, Jacie, was making a snack for the harvesting crew. She said she was excited about growing wheat for local markets but added that there were compelling reasons why wheat became an international commodity in the first place.
For example, the Palouse has a climate and rainfall pattern that is suited for growing wheat that appeals to foreign markets.
"Traditionally, the Palouse has grown soft white wheat," she explained, while husband Wayne was out harvesting that very wheat. "And soft white wheat is a low-gluten, low-protein wheat."
Which means, it's great for making the kinds of noodles and pastries popular in Asia, but not for the kinds of high-gluten breads preferred in the Western world. Therefore, very little of it stays in the United States.
"Most of it is exported to the Pacific Rim, as well as the Middle East," Jacie said.
However, the formation of Shepherd's Grain gave Palouse farmers reason to experiment with new and sometimes forgotten strains of high-gluten wheat that would not only grow in Idaho and Washington, but also appeal to Northwest bakers. Jacie said they've learned to grow those wheats here.
Traditionally hard, high-gluten wheats were grown only in places like Montana and the Midwest, then shipped to giant commodity mills, where they were blended into a consistent, uniform flour. In much the same way Scotches are blended to de-emphasize the regional and seasonal quirks a single malt might exhibit, conventionally blended wheat flours end up with an unwavering uniformity that American bakers have grown to expect.
But therein lies one of the allures of local wheat: the potential for character, even terroir. Instead of a blandly predictable Dewars, proponents say, you might find the flour equivalent of a Laphroaig or a Lagavulin. Or as Fred Fleming, a founder of Shepherd's Grain, put it while harvesting wheat west of Spokane, Wash., "Sort of like the terroir of France in their wines."
Finding regional variations in something as "white bread" as flour delights proponents of local food and gives farmers like Fleming the satisfaction of growing something distinctive. That's why he and partner Karl Kupers started Shepherd's Grain in 1995.
"When it goes into the commodity market," Fleming said of the majority of American wheat grain, "it just gets blended into one big shipload of wheat and there's no personality to it, there's no history of where that wheat came from, who raised it and how it was raised. So it just becomes another kernel of wheat in the big sea of wheat."
Fleming and Kupers realized they could further distinguish their product by not only branding it as "local" but also as "green." They require Shepherd's Grain co-op farmers to use no-till cultivation methods, which plant a crop directly in the stubble of the previous season's crop rather than till the field first. Far less erosion happens with no-till cultivation, and that's an inarguable plus on the steep-sloped Palouse, where some of the worst soil losses in the world have occurred.
Growing grain for local markets, Fleming said, also puts control of pricing in the hands of the farmers rather than distant commodity brokers or Wall Street speculators.
"Karl and I both thought that we needed to be that price-setter rather than a price-taker and de-commodify our product," Fleming said.
So far, they've only partially de-commodified their product. None of the 33 farmers who grow for Shepherd's Grain grow wheat exclusively for the co-op. In fact, Fleming said only 15 percent to 20 percent of any farmer's production goes to Shepherd's Grain today. He hopes, though, that local demand will eventually increase, further freeing his partners from the low prices and anonymity of the international market.
Shepherd's Grain isn't alone in that hope: Other artisan wheat producers are popping up across the country. A 2008 New York Time's article titled, "Flour That Has the Flavor of Home," noted a co-op of Native American and Latino farmers producing flour in New Mexico, front-lawn wheat farming in Massachusetts, and a group of farmers and bakers called Northeast Organic Wheat in New York, who are growing varieties of wheat in a region where they weren't believed to grow--much like Shepherd's Grain's hard wheat in Idaho and Washington.
Near Nampa, Beth Rasgorshek of Canyon Bounty Farm has been growing, milling and marketing organic, whole-wheat flour for five years. Rasgorshek is on the other end of the scale from Shepherd's Grain, and plants only about two acres of wheat a year and mills it in her barn. Shepherd's Grain, in contrast, mills its wheat in a Spokane facility owned by the international behemoth Archer Daniels Midland (the only mill left in the region).
"I'm a very mini ADM," Rasgorshek said with a grin as we toured her barn. But she didn't dispute the advantages of Shepherd's Grain's larger scale.
"For those of us who are just growing a few acres of wheat, we're trying to figure out how to mill it and how to create a quality product that can get transported in an efficient way to that end user," said Rasgorshek. "Shepherd's Grain, they're ... big enough that they can offer a lot of flour to the artisanal chain bakeries that have popped up in the Portland [Ore.] and Seattle [Wash.] areas and smaller bakeries, too."
Critics of large-scale agriculture will likely look at Shepherd's Grain with a jaundiced eye. After all, its farmers are still steering massive machines across vast monocultures in what is certainly not a locavore's dream. Yet large-scale farmers going local, like Wayne Jensen and Fred Fleming, are also establishing one-on-one relationships with customers.
"The first person that bought from us was David Yudkin from Hot Lips Pizza [in Portland, Ore.]," Fleming said.
Commodity wheat farmers don't usually get to know customers, Fleming said. But now, "the farmer gets to meet the people that actually are eating his product. And that gives a level of pride that is just unmeasurable."