Organic Grains Hold High Potential in Washington


by Jamie Henneman

Grain producers in Eastern Washington now have a new option for marketing and shipping organic grains, as a formerly shuttered grain elevator in Kettle Falls has reopened.

Red Bridge Farm Mill Foreman Josh Titmus oversees a shipment of Certified Organic soft white wheat leaving the Kettle Falls elevator and destined for a buyer in Iowa. The shipment was sent via Progressive Rail, a short-line railroad that runs through the elevator at Kettle Falls.

Red Bridge Farm Feed Mill, located roughly two hours north of Spokane, reopened the former Country Store feed business to process and sell their specialty feed in 2017.  Last October, the store also reopened its eight-compartment grain elevator as a Certified Organic facility.  Prior to the restart, the elevator had been closed for nearly 10 years.

To help make the silo a workable option for area farmers, Red Bridge Farm has networked with a short-line railroad.  Progressive Rail runs through the elevator, helping connect growers with grain buyers throughout the country.  Several carloads of Certified Organic grain have already been shipped out from the Kettle Falls elevator with destinations as far away as Iowa.

The new grain storage and rail shipping option means Eastern Washington grain growers interested in diving into the organic market now have the infrastructure they need.  The development was shared at an Organic Grain Growers Summit in Colville on January 24.

“We work with the farmer to secure a purchase contract that is shipped through Progressive Rail to the buyer.  We have eight different silos that can hold a half a million bushels of Certified Organic grain,” Red Bridge Farm Owner Brad Murphy said.  “Right now, we are charging the buyer the shipping costs, which is an arrangement that has worked out well.”

The potential for profit and market growth in the organic grain sector is compelling, according to Murphy, who noted that less than one percent of the crops grown in the U.S. are currently organic.

“The organic grain industry is worth over $1.3 billion,” Murphy related.  “Organic livestock products were worth $1.2 billion in 2011 and that grew to $3.3 billion in 2016.”

Murphy said organic grains can often bring prices that are “double” what producers would get for conventional grains.

“In the U.S. there is a high market demand for organic grains, but little production.  Most of the demand is currently being supplied by India, China, and Australia,” Murphy noted.

However, while the demand and the potential returns from organic may be high, the required switch in growing methods presents certain challenges.

For a crop to be “Certified Organic” through an entity that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it takes three years of organic growing methods in order to meet the certification requirements.  For crops to be Certified Organic, GMO seeds cannot be used, along with sewage sludge or irradiation.  Physical/mechanical methods of weed control must also be considered before any approved pesticides/herbicides are used.  An annual inspection or renewal fee must also be paid to the inspection agency.  For USDA affiliated agencies the cost is up to $750 for inspection, along with an annual fee based on gross sales.

 

Old Technology Works Best…

 

For farmers who have decided to transition to organic crops, the cost of herbicides and pesticides is often replaced by a time and fuel investment.

Farmer Ron McLean, who farms peas and grains near Addy, Washington, estimated that instead of chemical inputs to keep weeds down, he spent more time on the tractor (using approximately 2,000 – 3,000 gallons of fuel for his nearly 600 acres) and 300 total hours in the tractor during the growing season.

Old technology, such as a rod weeder, is a favored tool for keeping weeds down instead of sprays.  Using cover crops and fallow periods are other strategies to combat weeds, McLean said.

McLean did note that because organic farmers have a unique product, buyers often come to him.

“When you farm organic, the amount you get for your crop is double and the buyer comes and gets it, unlike the conventional market where it’s up to you to get it to market,” McLean noted.

Potential buyers for organic grains include specialty beer brewers, including LINC Cooperative in Spokane, and organic feed mills for like Highland Milling in Vancouver.

“Right now there is a whole bunch of interest from people in cities who have money and want to know where their food is coming from,” Nils Johnson, the Stevens County WSU Farm Coordinator who helped put on the grain summit, said.  “There is even talk of a ‘terroir of grain’ in the brewing industry that highlights different profiles of grain, much like what is already done for products like wine and cheese. “

For more information about the organic grain storage and transport available at the Kettle Falls elevator, contact Red Bridge Farm at (509) 738-9004.

 

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