The Bean Man
BY ELLEN JACKSON
Today, 95 percent of what’s grown in the Willamette Valley is non-edible. That’s why harry MacCormack is on a mission to bring traditional crops like legumes and grains back to this fertile region.
Usually “a hill of beans” is a folksy colloquialism for something of trifling value. Four years ago, a paltry handful of beans inspired Oregon Tilth co-founder Harry MacCormack to pursue the ambitious goal of relocalization, or taking back what was once local and is no longer, but should be. The concept is particularly appropriate when applied to agriculture in the south Willamette Valley, where a wide variety of food crops was once produced but is now dominated by farms growing grass seed for the global market.
MacCormack has always been a local food advocate. During the 40 years that he’s been farming in the southern Willamette Valley, he has promoted biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture in the state by pioneering sustainable farming techniques and helping to initiate the first organic farm certification program. Recently, he’s been experimenting extensively in the field with a hodgepodge of grains, legumes, and edible seed crops.
The first time he considered the potential for growing beans and grains in the Willamette Valley, MacCormack was shopping at the First Alternative Food Co-op in Corvallis. None of the beans and grains available in the store’s bulk bins came from local farmers. Wondering why, he purchased a fistful of each of sixteen items available as seeds and planted them in the hearty organic soil at his Corvallis farm, Sunbow Farm. When all of the seeds sprouted and began to grow, he became convinced that some of the crops could be competitive in the Willamette Valley, and the grassroots Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project was born.
MacCormack describes the bioregion delineated by the Willamette River watershed as one of the most bountiful garden valleys in the United States: “We can grow almost anything here.” As recently as 50 years ago, the assortment of fruits, vegetables, and grains produced in the valley provided the region with the means to feed itself, an important measure of social and economic stability. But the old agricultural paradigm of the Willamette Valley has been turned on its head in the last 25 years. Today, only 5 percent of the food consumed by residents is grown locally. The once robust regional food system has floundered in favor of planting profitable non-edible crops like fescue, rye grass seed, and Christmas trees.
Changing agricultural philosophies over time has meant a loss of experience and expertise in growing beans, grains, and other valuable food crops in the valley, which is two generations deep in grass seed farmers, many of whom are at least 60 years old. The Bean and Grain Project recognizes that reclaiming the region’s past agricultural knowledge and reviving previous growing techniques are critical steps to breathing new life into the regional food system. Converting large parcels of grass seed acreage into plots for organic beans, grains, and edible seeds is the next order of business.
Ultimately, MacCormack hopes that the project offers a catalyst for rebuilding systems and facilities for producing, processing, storing, and distributing food, leading to job creation. Our needs are not unlike those of the early settlers in western Oregon, who required grain millers, grain silos, food markets, and distribution hubs as the valley became populated with frontier settlements. MacCormack mentions the numerous seed-cleaning machines scattered throughout the Willamette Valley. With reconditioning and the problem of storage resolved, processing of locally produced grains could take place at any time, resulting in off-season employment and increased opportunity to buy from local producers, which keeps dollars in the community and strengthens the local economic base.
In 2007, the Ten Rivers Food Web, of which MacCormack is a committee member, commissioned a survey of the food processing capacity in the southern Willamette Valley. (Ten Rivers Food Web is a collective of consumers and farmers who want to see more of the food grown in their area—roughly Benton, Linn, and Lincoln counties—processed and consumed there.) The assessment identified business opportunities specifically in the area of soft white wheat and dried beans. Since then, MacCormack has worked diligently and patiently to raise awareness, generate interest, and gather enough support— both bucks and bodies—to give the Bean and Grain Project momentum. It’s slow going. “The urge to grow something different is there,” he says. But he goes on to explain that most local farmers will “watch and wait” while they continue to grow for long-distance specialized markets.
MacCormack is watching Harry Stalford and his wife, Willow Coberly, both of whom have considerable influence in the southern Willamette Valley farm community. Stalford Farms, their 9,000-acre family-owned farm in Tangent, produces grass seed with an eye to the future. Early proponents of Harry MacCormack’s strategy, Stalford and Coberly agreed to provide the site and equipment for a start- up operation to transition one 12-acre grass plot to organic food production and prepare to transition a second, larger plot (135 acres) to test the viability of a large-scale conversion to beans and grain. With 150 organically certified acres currently being used as a pilot for food crops, and another 300 acres in transition, Stalford Farms’ success is closely tied to the forward movement of the project. Foremost in everyone’s mind is that the test plots must show the potential for economic success.
Last spring, MacCormack and Stalford farms planted black, pinto, adzuki, soy, lentil, red, and garbanzo beans, plus eight rye varieties, four triticale, twelve wheat, four quinoa, three amaranth (which didn’t fare well), buckwheat and sunflower. “We had the coldest June in recorded history with one 34-degree night,” MacCormack recalls. “The spring planting of beans almost froze out and they never really recovered at Stalford.” At Sunbow Farm, MacCormack was able to use heavy organic amendments and techniques he’s long relied on to pull some of those crops out when Mother Nature threw a cold curve ball. The garbanzos and lentils handled the cold better than the broad-leaf plants, and the insistent pinto beans pulled through with a small yet hearty showing. Overall, the yield was one-half to two-thirds of what they’d anticipated, and what would have been expected in “normal” years.
The bad growing season couldn’t help but disappoint some of the co=ops and consumers who’d placed orders before the harvest. MacCormack remains energized and hopeful, however, undeterred by the unknowns and obstacles. The trial year was successful in most regards, and work is underway to develop local markets (co-ops and buying clubs), build infrastructure (processing and storage), and support and create incentives for farmers willing to transition acreage currently in grass seed. He test marketed this year’s crop of triticale at the local farmers’ market, selling it for $2 per pound to an audience who couldn’t get enough. His spirit and drive are contagious, energizing others to mark off small areas of their farms, kitchen gardens, or raised beds for experimental planting. He mentions a study done at Washington State, where it was determined that a 25-square-foot plot would yield between 60 and 90 pounds of wheat. Few of us have a spare 25 square feet in the backyard, but perhaps even the urban gardener can play a role in restoring the local agricultural balance by planting a handful of black beans or Lithuanian black rye seed.
Though it is still a loose collection of people trying to figure out how to shift paradigms, the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project now has legs and a considerable following. The USDA awarded an $8,000 grant to Ten Rivers Food Web to explore feasibility of local small-scale bean, seed, and grain processing. The study will provide a benchmark for establishing and assessing costs to start up and manage seasonal small- to medium-scale operations. Additionally, it will identify problems associated with the various aspects of post-harvest operations—transport, processing, distribution and storage. Finally, it will single out and assess additional sites for processing operations as well as initiate the organization of a local distribution and marketing network.
“We must produce more foods that are storable.” MacCormack’s mantra has raised awareness that growing more beans and grains in the Willamette Valley and selling them locally is absolutely crucial to strengthening the regional food system. If local food buying by individuals, supermarkets, restaurants, and processors can be stimulated back to a rate of 25 to 30 percent, the benefits could be astounding: an increase in community energy security, stronger local economies, and a noticeable improvement in environmental conditions and social equity, not to mention access to fresher food, decreased transportation costs, and community building. Not bad for a hill, er, handful of beans.
Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based writer and food stylist.