Shepherd’s Grain: Bridges Built, Alliances Forged

The farmers of Shepherd’s Grain plant the seed, feed the soil and reach out to a growing customer base. In the process, the group of producers have helped create a new model of sustainability, of their land and the mid-sized farm itself.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

For Garry Esser, it began as a favor.

During harvest, he was asked by a friend who runs a small mill to set aside some of his dark northern spring wheat. Esser, who farms in the Palouse hills of western Idaho, happily obliged. “So I’m harvesting away,” recounts Esser, “and we were filling trucks. Then, I remember I’ve got to get him a box of wheat. All of a sudden, I’m looking in the bulk tank every two minutes and thinking, ‘Well does this look good?’ I’m checking it all over and stopping and looking, making sure there’s no chaff in it.

John and Garry Esser

John and Garry Esser

“Then I dump it in the truck, and I get off and look again to make sure it’s not cracked. You know,” he says with a pause, “it was the same field, the same wheat, but somehow I was cutting a commodity when the day started and then I was cutting food—because I knew the people who were going to use it.”

That epiphany, says Garry, led him to join with Columbia Plateau Producers in 2010. Better known by its brand name Shepherd’s Grain, the organization has carved out a niche that’s been held up as a model for midsized farms too large and geographically distant from metro areas to sell to farmers markets, and oftentimes too small to thrive selling its harvest on the open market.

Shepherd’s Grain is a licensed grain dealer, yet, in what became a selling point to Esser, it contracts directly with customers—mainly commercial bakeries—instead of the open market. It further twists the typical business model with a payment system for growers that ensures the cost of production is covered, and requires its growers to practice farming methods that are sustainable, although Esser takes umbrage with the term.

“Our ground has been farmed hard,” he says. “It needs to be revived. If you had the flu, you wouldn’t want to sustain where you are; you would want to get better. So, I don’t really agree with sustainability—I feel like we need to get better. We need to take this land and make it healthier, and I think my connection to Shepherd’s Grain growers is going to be a vehicle for helping me find those solutions.”

More and Less

Started in 2002 by two Washington state producers, Karl Kupers and Fred Fleming, Shepherd’s Grain now includes about 60 wheat growers, mainly in the Northwestern U.S., with a few growers located as far away as Southern California and the Canadian Prairie. Although they’ve begun offering some of the milled grain at the retail level, the vast majority of what the group sells is to bakeries in Portland and Seattle. In 2015, the Shepherd’s Grain farmers produced a total of 673,000 bushels of wheat, a growth of about 720% since 2005.

Mike Moran, general manager for Shepherd’s Grain, which has contracted with ADM to mill some of the group’s flour..

Mike Moran, general manager for Shepherd’s Grain, which has contracted with ADM to mill some of the group’s flour..

“It really started,” says Mike Moran, the Shepherd’s Grain general manager, “when a lot of growers in our region realized that the way that the land had been farmed over the last few decades was not sustainable long term. In fact, because of wind and water erosion, particularly in the hilly areas of the Palouse, they were losing topsoil at a rate that meant that their families wouldn’t be able to continue to farm there if they kept doing what they were doing.”

A threat to farmland everywhere, erosion is a special menace in the extremely hilly Palouse region of Washington and Idaho. There, loess soils sit atop steep hillsides, many of which are farmed, even those at grades of 45% and more. One USDA study estimated that erosion rates on some slopes are as much as 100 to 200 tons per acre per year; compare that to 5.5 tons per acre in Iowa.

To combat the losses, as well as improve soil health, Shepherd’s Grain farmers often work together, sharing information on what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. As a result, many have minimized, if not eliminated, tillage. For instance, Esser and his son John use rotational and cover crops, and say they only till the ground every three to six years, unlike their previous practice of churning up the ground almost annually. “We do less so nature can do more,” says Moran of the group’s farmers.

Identity-preserved grain can be traced back to growers.

Identity-preserved grain can be traced back to growers.

Standards Established

As part of their agreement with Shepherd’s Grain, growers must be Food Alliance Certified, which for crop producers requires use of sustainable methods such as buffer strips bordering waterways, soil erosion prevention and pesticide recordkeeping. Producers must also preserve the identity of their grains, agree to grow certain varieties that have undergone testing for baker-friendly qualities and, among other tasks, complete a cost-of-production worksheet that includes everything involved in production, from seeds and fertilizer to fuel and health care.

The worksheet, says Moran, is one means by which Shepherd’s Grain helps to ensure another type of sustainability—the long-term viability of his producers’ individual operation. “We really do a lot of work every year to analyze the cost of production for our farms and use that to set the basis for the price [of] the flour.” That, Moran says, ensures producers “they’re making a reasonable living, a reasonable rate of return.”

Such a focus on the cost of production, says Jeremy Bunch, Shepherd’s Grain logistics manager, isn’t used to regulate producers’ costs, although cumulative data is shared among them for the purpose of comparison. Used to set prices, it does, however, provide for a measure of stability, both for growers and their customers. “The commodity market may go up and down,” he says, “but from year to year our price doesn’t change a great deal, and that allows everyone, including the customers, to plan better.”

Jeff Smalley, manager of Fire and Stone Restaurant in Portland, is one of many Shepherd’s Grain customers and fans.

Jeff Smalley, manager of Fire and Stone Restaurant in Portland, is one of many Shepherd’s Grain customers and fans.

Connections

Of course, planning requires coordination between farmers and customers, the latter explaining what qualities they look for in flour. “We did a lot of testing of different wheat varieties and developed the original Shepherd’s Grain flours that started in 2002,” says Moran, who, prior to joining Shepherd’s Grain, worked for one of the group’s first bakery customers.

“That really set the basis for what Shepherd’s Grain is. Now our growers make their planning decisions based on what bakers want and what consumers want. The flavor, the texture, the baking qualities of the wheat are just as important as their agronomic properties.” Yet, the exchange is both ways, making greater understanding a sort of byproduct of those connections. Shepherd’s Grain even organizes field trips in which farmers visit bakeries and customers visit farms. According to those involved, questions are asked, information exchanged, friendships forged.

“It’s really about … connecting farmers with consumers … and without that,” continues Moran, “we wouldn’t have that information flow from the consumer back to the farmer, and on the other side, really helping the consumer understand all of the complexity of farming.”

“The end users who have bought into Shepherd’s Grain have done so for a variety of reasons,” says John Esser, who recently became a partner with his dad, Garry. “But I’d say at the top of the list is they’ve loved the relationship that they have with the growers.

“You know, for so many people, you go to the store, you buy bread, you go home, you eat it. Nobody really connects the farmer to the bread,” continues the younger Esser. “Shepherd’s Grain offers an opportunity for people to know the information behind where their food comes from.”

Adds Bunch, who was raised on his family’s farm in western Oregon: “Many people in Portland and Seattle have a different culture than the country folk … on the east side of the Cascades. I mean, just different beliefs, different politics.

“But there’s something about food. When you put bread on the table—and that’s literally what we’re doing—it brings people together. There’s fellowship there. We discover we do have a lot in common with them. More than we would think on the surface.”

For more information on Shepherd’s Grain, see the group’s website.