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Sunday, February 14, 2010

More from my brush with the movers and shakers and clever folks who know more than I (which is just about everyone...)

I really enjoyed this workshop put on by the Oregon Wheat Commission. I am trying to keep the searchable terms down so I won't mention names. The Lazy Farmer makes no claims to accuracy where memory is involved. Years of exposure to diesel fumes and PepsiCola have ruined too many brain cells for any real reliable short term memory retention on any topic. Thus, I don't really want the nice folks who bought me an expensive room and an excellent meal to be offended by my lack of accuracy and attention to their efforts.
Oh, and I got a hat and a nice canvas tote. It is not a purse.
There was a lot of information, good demonstrations, all worthwhile stuff.
What I found interesting was more from the psychology of the whole thing. There are all sorts of competing relationships. There is the farmer who thinks he is really important and really cares about his product. He takes it to the grain terminal and expects to be treated in the same what he views himself. He may have 40 tons or 140 tons and that is his income, his sweat, his effort and his pride. The folks at the grain terminal deal with 1000 ton lots. They take in wheat by the barge or train load and send it out by the ship load. The union workers care about their jobs, or should we say they care about their job descriptions and protecting their contracts. The fellow at the office downtown who buys the grain is basically a salesman. He wants to make everyone feel important and tends to say what ever it takes to make the deal he is on-work out. Then he moves on.
In short, our crop of Soft White Winter wheat is but a drop in the giant commodities bucket.
So, the challenge would be to find niche markets.
We took a tour of Grand Central Bakery in NW Portland. I guess you would describe it as a "Craft" bakery. No preservatives, attention is paid to flavor, flavor is manipulated the baking process and not through chemicals.
We heard an interesting speech from the fellow in charge. He buys wheat from a group of farmers who are certified by the Food Alliance. They are certified as maintaining "fair" labor practices, environmental concerns, sustainablitly, and other code words that have meanings in the so called "green" circles.
He said he bought grain by taste and paid a premium for growers to raise good tasting grain and not use seed bred only for high production. I asked the OWC and OSU wheat breeder fellows about his and the laughed. They raised the question of how you could taste the difference in difference grains from the ground up flower. I don't know, perhaps you can if you are doing small lots.
But...when we were discussing the advantage of Pacific Northwest soft white wheat I understood that taste was a part of the quality. When we made the pita bread it did taste much better than store bought breads. Of course it was fresh out of the oven and made from fresh flower and so on. Which is not to say I disagree or find fault with the humor shown by the plant breeder.
The fellow will believe what he wants to believe and he has the cash. If it is a niche to cultivate then I would certainly try to make him happy.
The farmers I was with had their own comments. Some clever remarks were made about the bakery-which is not to say they were not interested. The bakery was very interesting. Everything is made fresh and sold and consumed the day it is made. Pretty interesting concept.
They were amazed at the Port Of Portland where the Union workers who make exports so expensive and protect their working hours and contracts so strongly. The farmers could not understand how the Union Workers could not work as hard as they could work. Why can't they just get it done and move on to the next job?
Well, that is because their idea of doing a quality job is fulfilling the terms of their job contract-not completion of the task. I'm sure they have great pride in what they do. It is just to exactly what we want them to do...
I find it very interesting to watch how the different conflicting view points influence how our wheat is grown and marketed. How it affects plant research. I see how the Wheat Commission is really important to bridge these gaps.
For example, the Grain company salesman says they will accept lots of trucks this summer and fall, but the terminal manager  says he has no plans to deal with the increase in truck traffic. Somewhere they will have to get together on this.
Small lots of grain are hard to sell because the terminals are set up for shipping in massive quantities. Quality testing is difficult for small shipments, Union and Port considerations make shipping in containers difficult and selling to the new craft style bakeries requires an understanding of a different political mindset.
The challenge is to work with it instead of against it. Your market is a hip Portland baker and wants you to drink the green koolaid I guess you are going to have to fake it a bit, or at least learn to drop the buzz words. We are already halfway to certification with all the government regulations we are doing right now anyway. That what are a couple more hoops to jump through? A lot of the conservation requirements are good ideas that we are doing anyway. The problem is that some of them are totally idiotic and we tend to get all worked up about the stupid stuff.
One final question that has kind of bothered me was with the OSU research. The plant breeder was talking about no-till and doing some no-till trials with different types of wheat. One of the farmers asked about how different types of wheat reacted to different soil types. I thought the wheat breeder said this was the job of a different department and they didn't talk so much.
I don't know if this was a joke or if he was serious. We ate so much every day that I had a hard time staying awake in the afternoon.
If it was not a joke then here would be another interesting example. The plant breeder does what he does and the soils department does what they do...but, I've found that different soil types make a difference when adjusting my no-till drill, or in the success or failure of a crop.
For example, I could no-till into a sandy loam in at the late end of the spring planting season and it would have a much higher success rate than if I no-till into a heavy wet clay soil. In the sandy loam the soil would fracture and break up and the harrow would spread it all out so you would have a layer of loose soil all over the ground. This breaking up of the surface structure helps to seal the ground and keeps the moisture in.
In the heavy clay soils with little residue, you end up working just the 1/2-1" wide slot that the coulters and openers run through. If it is dry not much soil is disturbed, if it is wet then there is sidewall compaction, the seed slot does not close so well, and when it dries it tends to crack along the groove made by the planter. As the heavy clay soil dries it looses all the moisture as you have not disturbed the top soil structure and sealed the ground. In this case you would have been better off to disk it first.
Anyway, this is just my little bully pulpit and what I say does not mean I am right or even know what I am talking about. I frequently get terms wrong and misunderstand people. You will not find me featured in "No-Till Farmer" magazine.
So just take this for what ever it is worth...


  1. University and industry research is run by scientists and technicians. When you're out in the field making decisions based on experience and instinct, you are more of an artist. You have to be. This rather upsets their parameters.

  2. People also listen to those who speak with authority. When I preface my remarks with, "in my opinion," or if I express any self doubt then I am not taken seriously. What I think is honesty is taken by many to reflect a lack of something. People who are full of crap and speak boldly and forcefully are taken seriously. That is the way the world works.

  3. It's been that way since first grade.

  4. As I've said elsewhere, the colleges and universities are always going to find in favor of the large corporate donors to their various departments. That's why folk methods, natural methods and organic methods of doing things "never work" according to the big educational poobahs, they're unpatentable and therefore unprofitable to corporate supporters.

    Also, If ingredients don't make a difference, then how can wine tasters and coffee tasters catagorize hundreds of different variations?

    As for one department not knowing what the other is doing, that's just bureaucracy for you (and a form of protecting their little bailey-wick).


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