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Grain is the most efficient way that humans have found to store food energy. Once harvested, it can remain viable and nutritious for several years, if it kept dry, cool, and free of pests. It also has long been an important component in crop rotations worldwide, and farmers throughout the ages have planted grain to enhance the fertility of their fields, as well as feed themselves.
In the 18th century, farms spread westward from the American colonies along with settlers. In cooler regions, wheat was often the crop of choice when lands were newly settled, leading to a "wheat frontier" that moved westward over the course of years. Quite often, grain was planted without rotating to other crops. This would lead to nutrient depletion in the soil. After the "wheat frontier" had passed through an area, more diversified farms generally took its place.
At Nash's, grain has been incorporated into our crop rotations in an effort to follow a more sustainable model of agriculture. It is vital because:
* The straw adds stable organic matter to the soil and increases fertility.
* Disease and pest cycles found in green, lush vegetables are broken when the same soil is planted in grain, which has a dry harvest cycle.
* It prevents soil erosion.
* It increases product diversity for the farm and provides organic, freshly milled flour.
* It provides organic feed for hogs, cattle and poultry.
Between 1880 and 1950, Western Washington was a significant wheat region. The grain elevator on the west end of town was built in the early 1940s, next to a railroad line. For a small town like Sequim, that was a big investment in infrastructure. It was built to store wheat, barley, dried peas and oats for area farmers and to load them directly into the rail cars for export to the Seattle market and beyond. Today the rail line is gone and the grain elevator is a silent witness to a time when Sequim actually produced and exported cash crops.
In recent years, only a few local farmers, like Gene Adolphsen, have been growing grain, but it is still a reliable crop for the Sequim Valley. In the early 2000s, Nash and Sam McCullough located an old Massey-Harris grain combine in Dungeness and Sam got it running again. Nash had decided to incorporate cover cropping into the farm’s soil-nutrient program, so their first grain crop was rye/vetch. Soon after, barley was planted for chicken and pig feed. Over the next few years, Sam and Nash experimented with small crops of other kinds of grain, such as triticale and oats. They finally bought some soft white wheat seed from Gene and planted their first wheat crop.
In 2007, Drs. Kevin Murphy and Stephen Jones from Washington State University were preparing to run organic wheat trials in four locations in Western Washington and asked Nash’s farm to participate. The objective was to determine the relationship between external factors (climate, soil, variety) and value-added traits (nutritional content, yield, disease resistance, baking quality). Every year for three years, Nash and Sam planted as many as 20 different red and white wheat varieties on tiny plots looking for the ones that could resist disease and yield high protein for baking. That work, plus their own study and experiments, convinced Nash and Sam that the farm could produce high quality grain in enough volume to be reliable and profitable.
Grain is grown at Nash’s for several important reasons, outside of its importance as a marketable product. It increases soil fertility in a very economical way, provides a dry cycle crop to rotate with the organic vegetables for pest and weed control, and it stores nutrition in the dry berries for people and animals over relatively long periods of time. For several years, Nash and Sam planted barley, rye and vetch for animal feed and cover crops. In 2009, they finally planted wheat specifically for human consumption.
There are hard red wheat varieties that are ideal for baking bread, and soft white varieties developed for use as pastry flours or pastas. These can be further differentiated by when they are planted. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and it overwinters to be harvested in late summer. Spring wheat is planted around mid-April, and harvested at about the same time as winter wheat.
Every year, Nash and Sam have to make a judgment call as to whether or not the upcoming year will have a lot of rain when they plan what kind of wheat to plant, when to plant it, and where. It is further complicated by the fact that different fields have different characteristics that may or may not lend themselves to growing grain. Since the grains are rotated with the vegetables, sometimes those choices are very limited. The ultimate goal is to provide a steady source of quality grains of various types to our customers, including local bakeries. That means planting different varieties of winter and spring grains to ensure that some will thrive. We continue to work with Washington State University to find varieties that will do well in our particular climate, in either wet or dry years, and varieties that will be more resistant to rust (a fungus particular to wheat in moist years). There are still many types that we haven’t tried and WSU is proving to be a tremendous resource in that regard.
In an effort to keep the grain seed crop viable through the damp winter months, Sam McCullough, Dave Roberts and the team at Delta Farm built a grain dryer and a structure to house it. The propane drying unit was previously used by farmers Troy Smith and Gene Adolphsen, who have been raising grain for many years in the Sequim Valley. The 5-hp, triple-phase fan forces warm air into a plenum box, a long, airtight box that supports four bins, whose bases are a series of screens. The air travels through the screens and up into the grain, exiting through the open top.
11-12% moisture is the industry standard for most cereal grains, like wheat or barley, and Sam uses a moisture meter to ensure the grain reaches that percentage. It takes 3-6 hours to dry a ton of grain, but with this new equipment, we are ensured viable seed for the next season.