In my early twenties, I was riding my bike across the Broadway Bridge over Portland’s Willamette River on a warm summer night when a dust of wheat bran and dirt covered my legs. My eyes followed the dust cloud down to the riverbank to a barge attached to a mammoth structure of cement cylinders by a claptrap of metal ramps. I had biked past this scene thousands of times in my life. At home, I looked the place up. The Cargill Irving Elevator is a bay of forty-two cement silos, each standing over one hundred feet tall, filled with grain
The Cargill Irving Elevator is a microcosm of the U.S. wheat industry: It is both known and unknown to us—enormous, constantly active, hiding in plain sight. Nationally, wheat is the third largest U.S. commodity in both acreage and gross farm receipts (behind only soy and corn). Almost every U.S. state is involved in wheat production. Our rural economies, not to mention our teamsters and ports, rely on the billions of dollars in value the crop brings annually. Decisions regarding wheat impact our public policies, appointments, and tax base. My home, Portland, Oregon, is the largest wheat and barley export gate in the nation. Every day, we watch barges full of grain arrive from the arid expanses of the Pacific Northwest, unload or reload at a grain terminal, and then depart down our rivers towards the Pacific Ocean for export. No matter what we eat, wheat is integral to our lives.
But we don’t see our local wheat farmers at the farmers market. We don’t ask how his or her day went or how the kids are doing. Many of us, myself included, haven’t really understood what wheat farming involves. It seems monolithic. Remote.
But I have learned that wheat farming is not monolithic. While the vast majority of wheat farms are monocultures, blanketed in wheat or bare ground as far as the eye can see, a small number are like patchwork quilts of diverse grains, grasses, and legumes. The latter is the scene of organic farmers who are utilizing crop rotations and cover cropping with increasing skill, growing different crops on the same parcel of land in an intentional choreography across years. They orchestrate these multi-year sequences to maximize the health of the soil, quality of their crop, and economics of their effort. Organic farmers are in the extreme minority: At last count, in 2014, organic wheat made up less than one percent of total U.S. wheat acreage, and cover crops were used on less than two percent of total croplands. But there is a tidal shift underway as their numbers grow. It’s time to take notice.
Eric Nelson calls himself a wheat farmer, but he grows a lot more than wheat. At nine hundred acres, he has what many people in Eastern Oregon would consider a small operation. His land, north of Pendleton, gets only twelve inches of annual precipitation. Most U.S. wheat is grown in aridity. Dryland wheat farmers typically follow a two-year rotation, alternating wheat cultivation with fallow periods, in which the land lays bare. But Nelson has moved away from that system and become an organic farmer. He now employs a ten-year crop rotation. He grows alfalfa for four years—one year to establish, two for production, one to decompose. Then he grows winter wheat for two years—his cash crop. Next, for four years he alternates spring cover crops like chickling vetch, a legume, with cash crops including mustard, barley, and emmer.
Ten years. A decade of his life. A decade of building the soil. “I’m a big believer in the idea that the quality of the food you eat is directly related to the health of the soil,” says Nelson. He chooses alfalfa because it fixes nitrogen in the soil, a building block for plant life and a direct correlate to his yield. Alfalfa’s deep roots help channel water, build soil microbiology, and reduce erosion. Nelson can sell cuttings from the organic alfalfa for feed.
Each plant in his crop rotation has unique attributes. Farmers have graphic names for the different categories of plants within a rotation: “Nurse crop,” “trap crop,” “catch crop,” “heavy feeder.” (See glossary.) Like a chef in the kitchen, an experienced farmer knows the power of each ingredient, but unlike a chef, his timeframe is measured in seasons and years, not meals and days.
Nelson’s system is unique to his land, his machinery, his access to seeds and markets, his knowledge base. Every piece of land is different. Every farmer is different. Farmers who adopt successful rotational systems have to stay in tune with the peculiarities and opportunities of their place. They have to be deeply involved and aware, whether their cycle takes place across six years or ten.
Timing is everything—when he plants, when he tills, how long he leaves for decomposition. Nelson isn’t stuck in a ten-year contract—it’s a road map. He adapts as he needs. His land is separated into eleven eighty-acre parcels that are each on their own rotational schedule. He has the space to try different sequences. At any given time, Nelson has less than half of his land in his cash crop, wheat. Nelson doesn’t harvest the cover crops that come later in the cycle. He cuts them back before they go to seed and tills them into the earth to become what’s called green manure.
“Growing new crops, you face new challenges,” says Nelson. “It’s easier to raise the same crop, store it in the same bins. [With crop rotations,] you have to change your management. We’re very fluid and flexible with what we’re raising.”
Why go through such a patient and intensive process? Growing the same thing on the same land year after year can cause a myriad of challenges including disease build-up and pests. Crop rotations reduce weeds, which reduces his labor expense; keep away diseases and pests, which improves the quality of his harvest; and maximize the available nutrients and water for plant roots. Crop rotations and cover crops effectively replace the role chemical inputs play. Cover crops are also a more cost effective source of fertility than fertilizer for Nelson. And by reducing fallow periods, he better controls wind and soil erosion. He can build soil fertility while turning a profit.
Yields have been more challenging. His spring yields are similar to what they’ve always been, but his winter yields are much more variable. “Wheat farmers don’t get paid on maintaining certain properties of the soil. We get paid on yield,” he notes. At the same time, all organic farmers, by law, have to improve the soil. “We want to be good stewards of the land because we understand that soil is key to our crops.”
But he points to a dynamic tension in rural communities between neighbors who care for each other and their community who may also have different values about how to farm. “Organic fits my value system. I’m happy I’ve made the choice to go organic. But I don’t expect any of my neighbors to follow in my footsteps. I want to be a good neighbor to them.” Organic has not gained the same kind of footing in the vast grain and bean belts that is has among vegetable farmers. Part of that is customer demand and awareness. Another part is yield. A third is cultural norms.
So how does a farmer raised without that knowledge learn how to orchestrate a successful crop rotation? How do they convince themselves to take a seven- to ten-year leap of faith into a new way of farming that virtually no one around them is doing?
Nelson went to Montana and the Dakotas to learn from experienced organic farmers. He didn’t have enough neighbors who knew, and his traditional service providers—fertilizer dealers, seed dealers—were not informed about organic. For the long-term viability of wheat farming, the sharing of knowledge is paramount—farmer to farmer and farmer to eater.
“It can be so complex,” says Benjamin Bowell, organic conservation specialist with Oregon Tilth and the National Resource Conservation Service. You can’t just follow a manual—it takes full immersion and investment in a system approach. “I respect these producers who are making it work.” Bowell specifically notes that Nelson and others have the extra necessity of finding their own markets. While Nelson gets as much as fifty percent more money for his organic wheat crop, he doesn’t have the ease of bringing product to the conventional wheat co-op any day of the year. He is on the phone seeking relationships, buyers. What’s more, to make it pencil, he isn’t just selling wheat; he has to find a buyer for his alfalfa, mustard, barley, and emmer.
Farmer Direct, an organic farmer cooperative in Saskatchewan, Canada is doing the legwork for its members that Nelson has to do for himself. “We have returned to a point where farmers realize they have to give more back to their soil,” says Jason Freeman, Farmer Direct co-founder and director of marketing and procurement. The co-op connects farmers with agronomists for mentorship. “They’ll have an oil seed crop like hemp or flax, then pulse crop like lentils, a cereal crop—wheat or barley or oats—and then a cover crop that becomes a green manure like alfalfa and clover,” says Freeman. Those who never amend with manure or compost will plant up to fifty percent of their acreage in cover crops to till back into the soil as green manures. And Farmer Direct sells what the farmers grow, from oats to French lentils to hempseeds to Einkorn wheat berries.
Nelson and Farmer Direct are seeking a market ready to embrace what Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has become the vocal champion of within the culinary community and beyond. In his book The Third Plate, Barber asks readers what would it look like if our diets actually reflected the work it takes a farmer, or fisher, or rancher, to nurture a thriving ecosystem. He proposes a new way of cooking and eating. “It combines tastes not based on convention, but because they fit together to support the environment that produced them… It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients.”
Wheat isn’t just wheat. On Nelson’s Oregon farm it’s also barley, emmer, and mustard. On Jon and Sharla Tester’s farm in Montana it’s safflower, lentils, buckwheat, fenugreek, millet, and mustard. At Klaas Martens’ farm in New York it’s spelt, mustard, kidney beans, and corn. On every organic farm, although it does not makes it to our plate, it is cover crops like red clover, field peas, winter rye, and hairy vetch—often grasses paired with legumes—that bring life to the soil.
I had another ‘Wheat rules everything around me’ moment a few years ago. I was spending a week in the Eastern Columbia Gorge with my boyfriend Corey. We had come to visit She Who Watches, a 300-year-old pictograph that looks down the Columbia River towards the Pacific, but also to tool around and hike. Our first day, I bought a book at an antique store called This Was Wheat Farming by Kirby Brumfield. Published in 1968, the book tells the story of the conquest of this region by pioneers through the evolution of wheat farming. Three-quarters of the rations that Oregon Trail pioneers carried with them were wheat and flour. It was their currency and primary food. Towns were built because they made logical homes for water-driven mills or central locations for wheat farmers to get supplies. Railways were built to move wheat to feed miners and loggers. Wheat shaped the human geography now carved into the land.
Equal parts history and nostalgia, Brumfield’s book also chronicles how what was once a central activity that brought people together in communities, requiring everyone’s efforts, became mechanized. Mechanization encouraged specialization. In the 1950s, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides replaced crop rotations and cover crops. The knowledge of how rotational wheat farming had been performed was almost lost to older generations and Bonanza Series coffee table books. But it is reemerging. Our willingness to pay attention and invest in organic farmers will shape our land and our future.
What can you do?
Excited to support farmers who are experimenting with crop rotations and cover cropping, but not sure where to start? We asked a few experts in the field and here is what they suggest.
“Organic producers are required to use a crop rotation. So by purchasing organic you are supporting farmers who rotate crops,” affirms Benjamin Bowell, organic conservation specialist of the National Resource Conservation Service.
Talk to local farmers. Buy directly from them. And buy more than just their cash crop.
Farmers with no organic certification label are also increasingly using cover crops, notes Josh Volk, farmer, consultant, tool designer, and author of Compact Farms, coming out in February. “Without third party certifiers to tell their story I think talking to farmers directly about their practices is probably the most effective.” But he adds that it requires a direct connection between the farmer and eater and an openness for conversation between them. That is becoming more possible as grain and bean farmers take the plunge, invest in small scale cleaning and milling equipment, and show up at farmers markets. If you haven’t found farmers selling these dry goods at your local farmers market, tell the market manager you want to see more and then be sure to show up and support the farmers selling them. Buy a diversity of their offerings—and make it a two-way street, asking them for their recipes, and in return sharing your experiences cooking.
Learn to bake the rainbow.
“When you buy grains locally, you often have access to varieties that you can’t find in the grocery store,” says Annie Moss, co-owner and baker extraordinaire at Seastar Bakery. “These diverse grains and flours are a sensory delight, lending a wide array of textures, flavors, and colors to your baked goods.” Think millet, barley, amaranth, and farro. Also, pulses like lentils and favas.
“Many recipes assume white flour. As you begin working rotational grains into your pantry, you may discover ways of tweaking recipes to make them more successful with these new ingredients. Help a friend troubleshoot their own recipes. Better yet, bring your knowledge to the market, and tell your farmers what you’ve learned. This will help them educate other customers!”
Annie also recommends expanding your grain horizons beyond baking. “Use them whole, boiled like rice in casseroles and salads; soaked and baked into sweet and savory treats; sprouted and fresh on top of salads and sandwiches; or ground in a sturdy blender and cooked into a breakfast porridge. Some grains, like millet, are even brittle enough to be eaten whole, toasted, to add an amazing crunch to baked goods, granola, or salads.”
Get involved with local agricultural organizations.
Oregon Tilth is actively doing work in the field to support farmers in adopting more sustainable practices. Sarah Brown, education director at Oregon Tilth, points to a number of resources on the Oregon Tilth website that make a fabulous starting place if you want to school yourself so you can have an engaging conversation with your local farmer. You can also attend the bi-annual conference Oregon Tilth puts on with three other organizations in February called Organicology, with sessions for not only farmers but also people interested in sustainable farming.
Other great organizations Sarah points to include the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP)—which supports farmers, park managers, and others in successful dealing with pests without using chemicals; the Practical Farmers of Iowa—an incredible farmer-led organization that consistently blows my mind with their creativity in tackling challenges by sharing knowledge between farmers; and the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, better known as MOSES, which hosts an annual organic and sustainable farming conference that draws thousands. Each of these organizations host educational events and fundraisers and produce publications worth diving into.
Like the name implies, nurse crops should keep other crops from getting sick or dying. Specifically, they are planted in combination before or together with another crop to provide shade or keep other weeds at bay, helping it grow until it can fend for itself. One example is oats planted with legumes like peas or hairy vetch. The oats provide a trellis for the legumes to climb, preventing them from falling over, laying on the ground, and rotting.
Like a nurse crop, trap crops act as helpers to another crop, but their role is narrower: They keep away pests. They are sometimes called a “sacrificial crop.” Rather than pesticides, you satiate the pests with something they prefer. They either act like a shield, planted around the full perimeter, or like a seductress, planted in-between rows to lure pests away. One example would be rye planted to draw corn seeding maggots away from soybeans.
This is the crop you grow that makes you the most money.
Catch crops capture minerals in the soil between regular plantings. If the soil lays bare, it is exposed to wind and water erosion, and the minerals may flush away. Catch crops are grown in-between successive plantings of another crop. They are fast-growing and can increase the efficiency and productivity of the space. Think radishes and millet.
Like animal manure, green manure provides nutrients that help plants grow healthy and robust. It’s created through the decomposition of plant matter, typically cover crops like legumes and grasses that farmers cut back before they go fully to flower and then work into the soil. As the cover crop decomposes, it releases minerals and organic matter into the soil. Growing a cover crop that becomes a green manure can help farmers save money on fertilizers and also protect their soil from erosion.
Heavy feeders are crops that need both healthy, mineral rich soil to begin life and also additional nutrients during the growing season to thrive. Which is to say, these are a class of especially gluttonous plants. A typical rotation would include crops that give back to the soil like green manures before a heavy feeder, which will draw the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium out. Heavy feeders include corn, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, and more. The terms “moderate feeder” and “light feeder,” correspondingly, describe crops that need either a normal amount of nutrients or very little.