Palouse Colony Farm, owned and operated by Palouse Heritage, was established along the Palouse River in the 1880s by German immigrant farmers from Russia who applied sustainable farming practices that included four-field crop rotations to promote fertility, use of natural soil amendments, and restoration of landrace grains and other heirloom produce. (Landrace grains are ancient pre-hybridized varieties of wheat, barley, oats, and rye). The farm was re-established in 2015 by the Ochs and Scheuerman families, who are descendants of those early immigrants. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Don Scheuerman, co-founder of Palouse Heritage and Director of Business Development.
Palouse Heritage landrace grains are grown at Palouse Colony Farm using the same Old World organic farming methods used by the farm’s original founders. Can you describe some of the old world farming methods that you use?
Primarily it is using different crops, and we are experimenting with cover crops, where you are looking at growing fields of clovers and companion crops like were used traditionally, and then plowing them in to create green manure. Part of what we are looking into is the impact of the landrace grains as a function of climate change and global warming. Years ago there was not access to and availability of the chemicals that are used in modern practices in terms of monoculture and industrial farming. Farming now days is primarily a function of chemical farming, not biological farming. Traditionally and prior to hybridization of the grains, there was a lot of plowing in of green manure crops to increase organic matter that created very robust microbial activity which eats up the carbon, so there was not the carbon release that exists now. Modern agricultural methods contribute to between 20 – 30% of global warming issues that have to do with the carbon. In using more traditional methods, we are not using synthetic carbon based fertilizers. We don’t use Glyphosate to suppress weeds. That is why we focus on the landrace grains. They are all a function of natural selection, which is how grain farming was done for millennia, and those old grains evolved in nature whereby they did not need the high carbon input in order to have yield. We are trying to improve an agricultural system for transitioning from a carbon based process to more sustainable practices. However, we want to be transparent, so for that reason we don’t say that we are organic, because we will spray a chemical fungicide on our crops if we need to in order to treat for a plant disease. But we don’t use Glyphosate or synthetic fertilizer amendments. And those are the things that are really bad for the soil.
I noticed on your website that the grain varieties that you are using are identified to be endangered, and there are efforts underway to promote preservation of these grains. I am curious as to why it is so important to you personally, Don, that there be preservation efforts for these grains, and why are you making it your passion and your business, versus just doing regular wheat farming like other people do on the Palouse? What is your motivation and inspiration?
That is a good question, and a complex question. I had been gone for many years and when I came back here there was a lot of financial stress with small farming in Eastern Washington. There was a consolidation of a lot of land into very large farming operations, and so I considered how it would be possible to enhance the value of grain on a per acre basis. You see, what we are really about is integrating the entire business model. We grow the grain but we don’t sell the grain like a commercial farmer would. That is why we cooperate in terms of building it out and making flour and selling flour, and we are in the process of developing a small business with a baker, so we grow the grain and mill it with our partner, and we sell bread. We are also in the preliminary stages of selling the grain for malt to the brewery world, and we are working in a collaborative effort to get a license for brewing. So we are not really interested in selling grain on the industrial level through a commodity exchange. We want to capture the margins all the way through. We grow the seeds and also partner with our neighbors on the river so they are also growing our crops for seed. We pay them a premium for this, and through this work they are in the process of transitioning their ground while getting a higher yield per acre. So we have our own little farmers group. We are interested in developing a vertically integrated market that sets a model for smaller acreages to have higher revenue on a per acre basis. The whole idea of landrace grains is that you don’t have to put on the synthetic amendments that are so bad for the soil. Our focus is on both soil health and human health, because we don’t use the toxic chemicals that translocate to the plants and then enter into the food system. At the same time we are slowly building a model that transitions away from industrialized monocultures. This means collaborative farming, collaborative bakeries and collaborative breweries with many stakeholders.
What have been some of the challenges that you have encountered since starting your business, and how have you overcome these challenges?
How much time do you have to let me address the challenges? It is more like what is not a challenge. We are starting out on a very limited budget, so it’s capital, dealing with weeds, dealing with land in transition, dealing with markets for flour, and because there is no commodity exchange to sell this, you not only have to grow it, you have to be able to sell it. So you are involved in growing it and dealing with not spraying weeds, trying to deal with cover crops, trying to do experiments to see what is most efficient, and finding grains that are well suited for this area. It is developing a market, from farming to storage to cleaning to having malting solutions for beer. You need to address all of these segments within the supply chain, because again we are interested in vertically integrating. So, there is not really any area that is not challenging, to be honest with you.
That brings me to another question…Is there anyone in the Northwest that is doing anything similar to what you are doing? Are there people out there that you can talk to, and learn from their experiences? Or are you being an innovator in what you are doing, and it is learn as you go?
The latter, because with a lot of the grains that we are growing there is literally no one else growing them in the United States. We picked these grains because historically they were very important and were first introduced generations ago. There is a rich history to these grains and they were well suited for growing here, but with the advent of monoculture industrialization and milling technology, they went out of favor. We have found that these grains have a high mineral content and the flavors are very deep and powerfully robust. Brewers and the whole grain bakers love them because of the intensity of the flavor profile.
What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to start farming with landrace grains?
Be reasonably well capitalized and have an extreme amount of patience! The learning curve is very high.
I know that you sell your grains through your website to retail consumers, what are your future plans for continuing to market your grains?
We have partnered with Shawn Thompson Duffy of Culture Breads, who has the first stone mill in Spokane in the better part of 100 years, and we just finished a custom built wood fired bread oven. Shawn is using our heritage grains to make fresh stone milled flour, and then uses this flour to make bread. We are constantly in the process of growing more acres, and are in discussion regarding selling the grains direct to distillers. Overall, there is a lot of interest in these old world grains not only because of the great flavor profile, but it is part of a movement in turning away from industrialized agriculture. We are into the idea of land health stewardship practices. We like the term “legacy agriculture”, because we believe there will be a continuing growth and interest in soil stewardship and in moving away from the large inputs of chemicals. We are doing a return and recovery to more sustainable methods of agriculture.
For more information on Palouse Heritage, please visit their website at palouseheritage.com.
Interview by Juliana Anderson.