The Cycle Begins Again

By Shepherd's Grain on September 19, 2016

As we near the end of the harvest for 2016, I am yet again amazed at the challenges our farmers face every year and their ability to adapt on the fly to a myriad of variables, few of which they have any control over at all. 2016 brought us a welcome relief from the early intense heat and drought of 2015. The mild temperature combined with some unusually late rains have contributed to above average yields. On the other hand, those same factors also tend to produce lower protein percentages. While the milling and baking industry have tended to focus on protein percentage as a principal measure of quality, what we see in years like this is that quantity is only a weak approximation of quality and resiliency and these are much harder to measure.

While talking with a farmer this summer, I was struck that farming is somewhat analogous to bread baking (maybe a little bit of a stretch but bear with me). In a bakery, the baker has more control over many of these variables but the effect of changes is very similar in how it affects the potential and ultimately the final loaf. The flour selection plays a role. The flour must have the potential to make a good loaf of bread. The baker then mixes the dough, adjusting hydration, mix times and other elements to maximize the potential in the four. But like the farmer planting the seed, this is just the beginning. With temperature, time, and humidity all playing roles in the fermentation, the baker works to control these variables to ensure the maximum potential of the dough. For the farmer, all of these variables are similar and similarly play a huge role in realizing the potential of the germinated seed. But for the farmer, most of these variables are outside their control. And so they wait, and pray, and hope that the conditions are just right. Too much or too little, or the wrong timing can all inhibit the final product. In the bakery as well, a dough that is over or under fermented, handled wrong, too wet or too dry, will result in something less than the full potential born of the wheat. And at harvest or bake time, the sum of all of these factors reveals itself. For the baker, every day a little different often so subtle only the baker knows the difference. For the farmer - once a year they see the fruit of their labor reveal itself. But like a knowledgeable baker, the farmer can - and our farmers do ---select the varieties that ensure the best outcome of baking quality and flavor. Our farmers have consistently shared that one of the most rewarding and valuable parts of being a Shepherd Grain farmer is the connections they have developed. Connections not only with the people that use the wheat they grow, but also between their work and the food that is made from the wheat they grow. For us it is no longer simply a matter of growing high yield high protein wheat, though this is what the commodity market continues to emphasize and reward. For the Shepherd's grain grower, the feedback we get from you is critical. Like doing tastings in the bakery, looking at the crumb, the color, the loft - we continue to look at the results you see and improve our variety selection and farm management. We are reminded that we are one partner in a larger group of farmers, millers, and bakers who work to provide people with healthy, nutritious and delicious food every day. We understand that none of us can do this alone. It seems simple too say it is really just emphasizing quality over quantity, but in global agriculture today this is nothing short of a paradigm shift. And we could not do it without you, our partners. Thank you for supporting Shepherd's Grain and partnering for a more resilient and sustainable future.

It is amazing how quickly the seasons change in our growing region! The first part of September has already brought cooler morning temperatures, and as I write we are getting a good down-pour of rain - something we haven't had for many weeks. All of the harvested wheat fields sit on the landscape with different hues of yellow and tan, but there are some exceptions - there are some bright green fields out there. And if you can find them, they are likely Shepherd's Grain grower fields. We have long talked about how our growers are trying new crops that diversify their cropping systems. Now is the time of year when this is as evident as ever. Fields of sunflowers, buckwheat, sorghum, millet, and corn are still very green and alive. Many of these crops are "unproven" in respect to their ability to be grown consistently in our region. Markets for these seeds are not as solid as wheat. So our growers are taking very real economic risks in trying to make these crops work. But they know that getting more diverse crops on the farm is a key component to long term sustainability. 
They believe that the risks and extra worth will be worth the reward. Ultimately, we hope that the progressive approach to sustainable agriculture that our growers are taking right now will be the leadership that changes all of agriculture in our region. We don't simply want our growers to have the corner on sustainability. We want it to spread everywhere. When you vote with your dollar to support Shepherd's Grain growers, you are supporting leadership towards true sustainability that will change the world that you live in for the better.