Shepherd's Grain Wheat Co-op Still Stirring National Food Conversations

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I write about Fred Fleming and the Shepherd's Grain wheat co-op in Year of Plenty. I wish I could claim to have made them famous but the truth is that national media outlets have been doing stories on them for years. When they are interested sustainable wheat farming, Shepherd's Grain and their no-till farming methods have been a go-to source of information. They have even been featured on CNN

The latest story comes from Helene York and the Atlantic Monthly. She is intrigued by SG's partnership with ADM, a company usually touted as the arch-enemy in conversations about sustainable food. York sounds a little conflicted as she writes:

I came away from my weekend with some complicated questions. Can locally baked bread be called "artisanal" if the wheat is from cooperatively farmed wheat fields that end up processed by ADM? What if the opposite were true: if the wheat were milled in an employee-run facility but came from the commodity markets? 

Perhaps the lesson is that there's no one path that can suit every region, especially now, with consolidation having left producers with only a few scalable choices. ADM may have bought up most large-scale mills over the last century, giving groups like Shepherd's Grain nowhere else to turn. But if a plant manager takes a political and operational risk, and makes it possible for a co-op that grows wheat responsibly to survive, is that bad? 

Re-regionalizing our food system will surely mean creating new alliances, some with small entities wishing to grow bigger, some with large entities whose ways we often (rightly) criticize. Perhaps the most sustainable solutions will be those forged by individuals who need each other's support and resources, at interim steps along the way, regardless of the size of the entities they represent. 

I wrote in a previous post about the nature of this unusual partnership between an "artisanal" co-op and a mega-corporation. My post was sparked by a conversation with Fred Fleming and his words, "Hello, my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer." I wrote:

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

Picture: Palouse wheat fields as seen from Steptoe Butte.