Neighbors thought he could never grow wheat and barley in a place that gets 82 inches of rain a year. But Evan Mulvaney knew his history.
“The Chehalis Valley grew grain for years,” said Mulvaney, owner of Hidden River Farms near Montesano, Wash. “This was a big grain-producing area.”
Historically, most local farmers grew small grains for the same reason Mulvaney does—to feed their livestock. Fields of yellow peas feed his pastured hogs, and their manure supplies his crops in turn, helping the soil and the environment. At the same time, he rotates wheat, barley and rye for a local distiller.
“It made sense for us to start growing our own grain,” said Mulvaney, who will share his experiences at the fifth annual Cascadia Grains Conference, to be held Jan. 6 and 7 at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.
The conference, presented by Washington State University in partnership with Oregon State University, brings together farmers, processors, researchers and consumers to support the rebuilding of a grain economy west of the Cascades.
Small grains like wheat, barley and oats were important crops in western Washington, Oregon and British Columbia from the mid-1800s. They declined in the 20th century, as economics and industry practices changed.
Consumer demand for local grain is on the rise once again, but west-side farmers continue to face challenges, such as a lack of processing infrastructure and the loss of generational knowledge. The Cascadia conference helps them solve those challenges.
“Connections made here can mean a huge difference,” said Louisa Winkler, a doctoral scholar and plant breeder at WSU, and a three-time conference attendee. “It’s important to have that stage for local grain.”
Bringing back the oat
This year, Winkler will present WSU efforts spearheading the return of oats, which mostly vanished in favor of other crops some 40 years ago.
“Historically, they’ve been very successful as a food and feed grain,” Winkler said. “The missing piece is how modern varieties perform—there hasn’t been any variety testing of oats here in at least 50 years.”
Working with farmers in Island, Skagit, Thurston and Whatcom counties, Winkler is doing just that.
“I’ve seen some incredible oat crops in Western Washington,” she said.
As a rotation alternative to wheat or barley, oats have natural advantages west of the Cascades. For starters, oats love rain.
“They yield better and produce higher grain quality when spring and summer temperatures are mild,” said Winkler. Oats grown in western Washington don’t encounter a major oat disease, crown rust, which affects most oat growing areas in the world. With lower nutrient requirements, Winkler sees them as environmentally friendly.
By seeking milling opportunities for food-grade oats, or growing grain as chicken feed for organic eggs, Winkler’s farmer allies are helping advance the conference’s mission of fostering the grain economy.
“There’s everything to play for,” she said.
Innovating with barley varieties
Back at Hidden River Farms, Mulvaney has teamed with WSU plant breeder Kevin Murphy and Thurston County Extension Agriculture Faculty member Stephen Bramwell in a proposed 2017 field-test of barley varieties.
Mulvaney will grow barley for micro-malting and distilling, with a focus on the impact of variety on flavor compounds in beer and whiskey, as well as other end-use characteristics for west-side production.
“Like other farmers, I just want to find something that works,” he said. “That’s why I put in half an acre of rye this fall. Crops need to rotate—pests will catch up with you. I like to keep it new, especially if there’s a vibrant market that will take your product.
“We’re constantly looking to diversify,” added Mulvaney, who is crowd-funding his own butcher shop and commercial kitchen. “You always have to innovate—that’s part of being a business owner.”
Learn more about the Cascadia Grains Conference at https://cascadiagrains.com/.