Shepherds of the Soil

September 29, 2011 01:00 PM

Fred Fleming says he is bilingual, and he frequently combines his two languages, as he'll do today at a Seattle food show. "I speak Farmanese—that's our language on the farm," says the Reardan, Wash., grain producer. His second language: Food Activist.

Fleming and partner Karl Kupers hatched the plan for Shepherd's Grain in 1999. It supplies hard red wheat (HRW) to bakers and millers throughout the Pacific Northwest and parts of California.

"For a farmer, talking to people from Portland with tattoos and body piercings is kind of hard to get used to. But they have the same goals we do; they want to provide a good product that people will buy," Fleming says.

The business plan developed when the farmers realized their locally grown white wheat flour was exported to Asia while the HRW used by area bakers came in from Colorado and Montana. They saw great market potential in supplying the local demand for HRW and, along with six other farmers, started growing it commercially in 2002. Today, the 33-farmer cooperative has 140,000 acres in three states. 

Multi-niche. The co-op promotes its wheat as locally grown, by family farms. Its sustainability message is built primarily on no-till, along with many conventional farming practices. "Bakers come out to the farm and see that we have healthy soils," Fleming says.

The process has been an eye-opening one for Josh Dorf, owner of Stone-Buhr Flour Company, a San Francisco-based flour producer. He started buying flour from Shepherd's Grain wheat three years ago. Originally, he set out to find growers who could provide organic wheat. He now believes the co-op's more conventional practices are a better option than organic because of no-till direct-seeding.

"I tell people this is beyond organic," he says. "I'm buying local, and what can be better than that?

Stone-Buhr has taken the process a step further with the Web site Lot numbers on bags of flour allow consumers to look up which farm grew the wheat in the flour they buy.

"The bakers know who produced it and how it was produced," Dorf says. "These farmers are farming responsibly, and I can offer something different to our customers."

Top Producer, November 2009

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