Skagit Valley’s grain economy takes a holistic approach.
by Ellen Hiatt
Farmer Dave Hedlin spent the better part of late August working tirelessly to harvest grain before late summer rains hit. The year was better for farmers than the prior when spring rains would not let up. Weather patterns have always been unpredictable for farmers – more so today than ever. Perhaps even less predictable are the seasons of people’s passions and tastes.
As commodity farming has driven more mono-crop choices and national production, grains were a crop grown locally for cow feed, or as cover crop to be tilled under as a nitrogen source.
In less than a single decade, all that has changed. In the early part of the last decade, the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, agricultural interests, the Port of Skagit and other partners collaborated to create the Value- Added Agriculture Innovation Partnership Zone. Out of that effort came Genuine Skagit Valley, the branding of the terroir of the valley where farmers boast of the finest agricultural soils in the world.
In 2011, the Port built a 6,000 square foot commercial kitchen, and the Washington State University Extension arrived as the first partner in the zone, creating a grain research operation that has since become nationally recognized.
“In our valley they grow 80 crops, 80 different crops of commercial significance. Number 79 and 80 in terms of importance to these growers would be barley and wheat. They have to grow barley and wheat to rotate in with their tulips or potatoes or things like that. Our job then is to give value to those two crops that had very little value,” said Dr. Stephen Jones in one of his many presentations to be found on YouTube.
Dr. Jones initiated the WSU Bread Lab to research wheat and grain crops of nutritional value and flavor. As the commodification of wheat and grain products became a national concern, the product was hybridized with an eye to production quantities and values. Only cow feed is required to quantify nutritional value. Locally, hybridizing and growing wheat, barley and other grains to benefit the entire food chain is benefitting an entire community and the regional food system.
On board with that idea are the bevy of bakers from across the nation who order pallets of Edison hard white spring wheat and Skagit 1109 from Cairnspring Mills, and flours from Fairhaven Mills, both Skagit County grain mills using stone milling to retain flavor and nutrition.
Cairnspring Mills in Burlington uses a stone mill to incorporate the wheat germ into the product, returning those flavors and values to the grain in the end. The flavors of local grains are extolled by amateur and professional bakers from New York to Los Angeles, with the #skagitvalley, #cairnspringmills and #fairhavenmills hashtags in free advertisement and community building fashion around the soul nourishing confections they create.
“The analogy I use for what’s happening here is like it’s an old fashioned barn raising,” said Kevin Morse, owner of Cairnspring Mills.
“Everybody has pitched in to create something that’s benefitting the whole community and multiple businesses. People want easy answers and they tend to gravitate away from complexity in challenges to always try to find an easy way out. By doing that we neglect the connectivity and how it impacts an entire system.”
“Our system changed from one of small regional mills. We had 24,000 mills in the United States and we now have 166-170 in the last census. We’ve gone from a real sustainable system that kept the value in the community locally, to a huge industrialized system that extracts value from the community that makes flour with all the nutrition stripped from it and flavor,” Morse said.
“We put the farmers in the commodity system, which quite frankly drives the family farm out of business. Vibrant, robust, natural systems are the only way we’re going to survive,” Morse said.
“Our chance as a community and as a species is to find a way to align food production and conservation. We still have a chance in the Skagit. And in Whatcom and Snohomish.”
Water Tank Bakery at the Port of Skagit is yet another bakery benefitting. They credit Morse and the Cairnspring Mills team for support, along with Seattle chef Tom Douglas for providing an $80,000 deck oven during the pandemic to kickstart their business.
As the Bread farm pulled back from wholesale business – with a raving business at its alleyway pick-up window in the tiny town of Edison – Water Tank stepped in, having developed enough capacity, with the support of other grain enthusiasts like Morse, to fill that void. The success of one bakery, one farmer, and one miller all depend on the entire community pulling together to create opportunity.
MORE THAN AG
While the community celebrates their Ag lands, farmers, bakers and distillers, gathering in restaurants whose short sheet menus boast the juicy tomatoes of Hedlin’s greenhouses and the revival of the humble brussels sprouts grown by Skagit Valley Farms, agriculture has taken a back seat economically to other industries.
“We are a manufacturing community, but historically we are an agricultural and natural resources extraction community and economy,” shared John Sternlicht, CEO of Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County.
At the Port of Skagit there is a lot happening with transportation and manufacturing. The Port is about to launch a three-phase project to develop the Watershed Business Park, bringing 123 acres of land and opportunity to create more jobs and businesses.
Economic developers describe Skagit County as “land constrained,” in part because of the success the community has had in conserving its agricultural lands.
“We just need to be more thoughtful and deliberate about the use of our limited developable industrial land in our business attraction and expansion efforts,” said Sternlicht.
“We look for things that are appropriate not only in size and in our human and physical resources but also in the industry sector to which they belong. Sustainability and a clean environment are of paramount importance. We look for things that are agricultural in some respect while advancing manufacturing that serves our nearby maritime and aerospace companies, as well as others like composites.”
ENJOY THE BOUNTY
Skagit Valley’s bounty can be found across the country – indeed around the world. As Hedlin is fond of saying, “If you have kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany or coleslaw in New York City, there’s a better than 50-50 chance that the seed that grew that crop came from with in about eight miles from…here.”
That’s because at least half of the world’s seed crops for spinach, beets and other crops is grown in Skagit County. And, of course, across this nation bakeries and brewers are enjoying the benefits of grain grown for flavor, not just yield. For several years, farmers were able to sell their grains directly to Skagit Valley Malting, which abruptly shut its doors recently. While farmers scrambled to find other malting and grain consumption outlets for their grains, they remain in hope that another malting operation will take its place.
In the meantime, Hedlin recently visited Seattle’s Westland Distillery to celebrate the first pour of a new Single Malt Whiskey, Colere, made “with the sourcing of an entirely new barley varieties that are often overlooked or unused” – barley Hedlin grew seven years before.
“Seven years ago we grew that barley. Seven years it’s been in the barrel. And now you are drinking it,” Hedlin said. “It’s really fun to see!”
Because Skagit Valley malts and grains are found across the world, just about any restaurant or brewery in the state that advertises local and sustainable will likely include Skagit Valley grains.
From Terramar Distilling in Edison, to Westland Distillery in Seattle. Look to bakeries like Grain Artisan Bakery and Market in Snohomish, where buttercream cakes and brownies are set apart because of the quality of ingredients. Restaurants, from Nell Thorn Restaurant and Pub in La Conner, to Roger’s Riverview Bistro in Snohomish and Bluewater Distilling in Everett all focus on locally grown, sustainable foods.
“I think in America we have a real opportunity to reinvent food,” Hedlin said. “People are enthused about local.”