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Cougar Flour Power Is Model of Sustainable Agriculture

Leslie Sorenson, baker, and Bruce WIlliams, pastry chef, appreciate working with locally grown and milled flour. Photo: Brian Clark.
Leslie Sorenson, baker, and Bruce WIlliams, pastry chef, appreciate working with locally grown and milled flour. Photo: Brian Clark. Click image for a high resolution version.

PULLMAN, Wash. – The majority of wheat grown in eastern Washington is consumed far from the region’s rolling hills. But thanks to a growing business partnership between Washington State University Dining Services and Columbia Plateau Producers–producers of Shepherd’s Grain flour–more and more of the crop is being milled and consumed locally.

All of the flour that WSU Dining Service uses–some 38,000 pounds per school year–comes from Shepherd’s Grain. The whole wheat baking flour is milled at the Old Centennial Mill, now owned and operated by Archer Daniels Midland, in Spokane.

“That goes into nearly a half-million slices of pizza, more than 12,000 pieces of banana and zucchini bread, over 200,000 cookies and thousands of other baked goods,” said Doug Murray, Dining Services executive chef and associate director.

The volume of flour used in baked goods will jump dramatically in the 2007-2008 school year when Dining Services takes over sporting event concessions. Cougar fans typically consume 12,000 hotdogs and hamburgers per football game, said Murray. It takes about 50 pounds of flour to make 1,000 buns.

In addition, Dining Services’ main bread supplier, Hearth Bread Bakehouse of Spokane, also uses Shepherd’s Grain.

Almost all of the growers affiliated with Columbia Plateau Producers are WSU alumni.

“We have a symbiotic relationship with alumni growers,” said Murray.
The relationship is a model of sustainability that benefits all involved as well as the environment.

Farmers in the Columbia Plateau Producers consortium raise Terra, a hard red wheat variety developed by WSU scientist Kim Kidwell, as well as a proprietary variety developed in Montana. Different types of flour usually require adjustments to the way it is used in recipes, but not so for Shepherd’s Grain, according to Jeff Wold, general manager of the Hillside Café on the Pullman campus. “Shepherd’s Grain flour drops straight into our existing recipes,” he said.

Wold praised the consortium and WSU Dining Services for the relationship they have developed.

“Basically, we’re changing the ecosystem with food,” he said.

Certified by the Food Alliance as a sustainable and socially responsible producer, the consortium uses direct-seed or no-till farming practices which, the growers say, reduces plowing, which in turn preserves top soils, lowers fuel costs and protects the microorganisms and worms that contribute to soil health. In addition, crop residue is left standing to reduce soil erosion and improve moisture retention. Less erosion means less runoff of pesticides into local water systems. Direct-seeded fields also sequester carbon.

“Direct seeding can be part of the solution to prevent global warming,” said farmer Karl Kuper, one of the founders of Columbia Plateau Producers.

Add to that is the savings in fuel costs. Fleming estimates that using the direct seeding method reduces diesel consumption on his farm by 38 to 42 percent. By milling and consuming locally, Shepherd’s Grain and WSU Dining Services are also reducing the number of miles the product has to travel to get from the farm to the consumer.

The WSU-Shepherd’s Grain partnership began in 2001. Since then, the production of bushels of wheat grew from 2,000 to 220,000 bushels. Altogether, Columbia Plateau Producers has more than 70,000 acres under direct seed production. Other Shepherd’s Grain customers include the University of Idaho, Whitworth College, Gonzaga University, the Coeur d’Alene Resort, and Spokane’s Luna restaurant and Davenport Hotel.

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