Local Farmers Going Against the Grain

Skagit Valley grains are better than grains from other states. Why don't we start acting like it?

When you’re in the Skagit Valley, it feels like you’ve gone to the very source of what it means to “eat local.” Many of the goods we buy at Seattle farmers markets comes from this valley—from producers such as Skagit River Ranch and Samish Bay Cheese—and its towns are dotted with quirky bakeries selling freshly baked loaves, and brewpubs pulling tap handles bearing cheekily named beers from a dozen breweries within county lines.

But beneath the feel-good fresh surface is a paradox that many of the local producers would like to change: Those golden boules are made from wheat shipped in from Canada. That local beer you’re drinking likely relies on malted barley from Europe. All those fields of grain? They’re being shipped overseas. Despite the local glow, farmers here are ultimately beholden to a national commodities market that dictates what their crops—and the land they’re grown on—are worth.

The goal is to find a way for local farmers to break free of the commodities market. “We don’t want someone in Chicago telling us what wheat grown on San Juan Island is worth.”

Stephen Jones is trying to change all of that. In his unassuming roadside lab between Mount Vernon and La Conner, the crop and soil professor and his small team of graduate students at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center spend their days studying grains: breeding, sprouting, grinding, baking and even blowing them up into big, scientific bubbles to better understand which grains are the most commercially viable locally.

Any strain of wheat that has been grown in Washington since 1840 can be found growing here in the greenhouses and fields behind the lab, along with countless specimens from across Europe and the United States. The goal is to find a way for local farmers to break free of the commodities market (which doesn’t distinguish a bushel of Skagit Valley wheat from a bushel from Kansas) and, instead, sell their grains to people in their own community who value a local product. “We don’t want someone in Chicago telling us what wheat grown on San Juan Island is worth,” says Jones.

The vast majority of the wheat grown in the valley’s 80,000 farmland acres goes to grain terminals in Seattle and Portland, where it gets mixed with wheat from the rest of the country and exported to Asia, South America and the Middle East. But the growing consensus among local producers is that Skagit Valley grain by itself is indeed worth more. Scott Mangold, who owns the Breadfarm bakery in Edison and gets his flour from Canada and other non-local sources, has been experimenting with bread made with special varieties of whole wheat he’s gotten from Hedlin Family Farms in nearby La Conner. “There is a marked difference in how this stuff tastes,” Mangold says. “It’s sweeter and richer, with layers of flavor. It’s got this earthiness.”

It’s becoming clearer, Jones says, that the same concepts of terroir that apply to wine can also apply to grains. “It’s the soil, the water, the rainy and gloomy days,” he says. And Mangold isn’t the only one eager to get his hands on a steady supply of these “estate-grown” grains. George DePasquale of Seattle’s Essential Baking Company says he’d like to be able to offer specialty loaves to his customers using Hedlin’s wheat. “There’s always been a debate in the baking community whether there’s such a thing as terroir,” DePasquale says. “But after [tasting] this, I’m a true believer.”

Jones has been working with hundreds of farms like Hedlin to help them get more for their grains and connect them with other producers along the local food chain. Back in his lab, Jones helps these farmers identify plant breeds that have just the right combination of flavor, functional properties and resistance to disease. The flour from these grains may not possess the same consistency as the mass-produced flour that bakeries are accustomed to getting, but Mangold sees that as an opportunity to hone his skills as a baker and make better artisans out of his staff at Breadfarm. “Back in the day, bakers had to adjust, and we’ve lost the knowledge of how to do that,” he says.

For David Hedlin, a third-generation Skagit Valley farmer who grows dozens of different commercial crops for sale through his CSA and Seattle-area farmers markets, adding more value to grains that are predominantly used as a rotation crop—and sometimes may even be plowed under rather than sold, if the commodity price is lower than the harvesting cost—is an encouraging boost. He’s looking into ways he could ramp up his grain operation to meet the demand.

“I’m most excited that we’re developing viable options for crops,” Hedlin says. Without that, he fears “the magic Skagit” could suffer the same fate as once-similar farming communities like Kent and Lynnwood, where farmers ultimately yielded to developers who, he says, “decided the land would be worth more with a Krispy Kreme on it.”

In addition to bakers, craft brewers are lining up as well, salivating at the prospect of incorporating Skagit Valley malted barley into their local beers—not only to create a product that uses more local ingredients, but for the opportunity to get barley malted to their own specifications to achieve different qualities and flavors.

Jones’ next-door neighbor in Bay View, Wayne Carpenter, retired from his job as a software company executive several years ago only to find himself tinkering away in his garage on a project that is quickly turning into a new career. Using barley from five area farms, Carpenter has developed equipment that allows him to custom-malt barley according to brewers’ specifications. “There are only about nine custom maltsters in the country,” says Carpenter, “and none of them are doing it very well.”

With the financial backing of Skagit County and the Port of Skagit, Carpenter and several partners are building a 10,000-square-foot plant under the name Skagit Valley Malting & Brewing. Although it will have a private tasting room where the partners can showcase their own sudsy creations using local, Skagit Valley everything—water, hops, barley and yeast—Carpenter is billing it a lab and production facility: “We want to give the top craft brewers help with something they can actually control.”

“I think it’s great that this kind of thing is coming up as a possibility,” says Elysian Brewing Company head brewer Dick Cantwell, who has had talks with Carpenter’s company about using its custom malts. “As more and more breweries start up and we continue to command a disproportionate amount of ingredients, craft brewers really need specialty malts. So we need more sources and more volume to continue to brew the kinds of beer we want.”

Skagit Valley farms still have a way to go in terms of being able to meet the quantity demands of bakers and brewers. But Jones believes that by constructing new facilities that will employ people, giving artisans reasons to learn new skills and hone old ones, and connecting members of the community with one another, this small grains revolution goes beyond the usual cliché of “local.” “The way we look at it is as food justice, sovereignty and security,” Jones says—a good argument for farmers like Hedlin to keep doing what they’ve been doing for generations, and keep pushing to do it better.