Quality vs Quantity

October 20, 2016

September 27th turned out to be a perfect autumn day to take a bus load of folks for an outing at the Emerson Dell Farm in Dufur, Oregon. Margaret and David Brewer's families have been farming outside of The Dalles, Oregon since 1880 and have been part of the Shepherd's Grain family since the beginning. The rolling hills on the east side of Mt. Hood provided a perfect backdrop to look at how big of an issue soil erosion is for our farms, and how a no-till rotation is critical to addressing one of the most critical environmental issues facing American agriculture. David also shared the work he is doing to increase the diversity of his rotations, including the introduction of livestock. In an area like Dufur, the Mt. Hood rain shadow means that average rainfall is extremely low. Historically, the tillage system approach to improving yield has been to "fallow" the ground for a year. This essentially means to plant nothing and try to "bank" one year's moisture. Repeated tillage not only reduces weeds and bugs but creates a dust mulch layer that reduces evaporation. The idea is that the crop then has two years of moisture to use for its growth, though in reality it is more like one and a half years of moisture with evaporation and drainage. In very dry areas, this practice has largely continued even in no-till farm transitions. The problem is that without living plants on the ground, there is no food for the microbes below the surface. Ironically, the hidden biology below the surface also is needed to increase the ability of the soil to absorb and hold water. By replacing fallow with cover crops that can be grazed, the farm is able to improve both the health of the soil but also its ability to capture and retain moisture. And almost as a side benefit they can improve productivity over time. That being said, ultimately the goal is increasing resiliency - the farms ability to adapt to differences in weather from one year to the next. Dr. Andrew Ross of OSU was also able to join us on the tour. Over lunch provided by Bon Appetit Catering's University of Portland crew, we gathered in the shade of David and Margaret's yard to hear Dr. Ross speak. He told us about the work he does on understanding and improving wheat quality and the importance that resiliency plays in improving both the vocation of farmers and the quality of the wheat they grow for bakers. As Dr. Ross stated, bakers have become accustomed to thinking of quantity (percentage of protein) as a measure of quality. With variability in temperature and moisture from year to year, wheat protein levels and bushel yields tend to move in opposite directions. When yields go up, proteins go down and vice versa. But, as he pointed out, and we have seen in our variety baking tests, protein quantity is only a weak measure of quality at best. So why does this matter? All wheat pricing (except Shepherd's Grain) is based on premiums and discounts for protein content. The higher the protein, the more the farmer gets paid per bushel, regardless of yield. So the market incentive for the farmer is to breed and grow higher protein flours. The most effective way to do this is to increase fertility (nitrogen primarily) and reduce competition (use more pesticides and/or tillage). Both of these things unfortunately negatively impact soil health and the environment in general, killing soil biology and increasing nitration of streams and rivers. As Dr. Ross pointed out by doing the quality testing we do, and basing our price on the cost of production, Shepherd's Grain is altering the incentives so growers can focus on both supporting soil health and the environment, and the qualities that baker's need. By supporting Shepherd's Grain, you too are playing a role in affecting change. Next month, we will explore more on the difference between quality and quantity.