More and more amber waves of grain are showing up here in the Grass Seed Capital of the World.
For decades, the Willamette Valley has been a center for grass seed production. But demand for the seed to grow lush lawns has fallen with the housing downturn and overall weak economy.
And grass seed farmers face higher production costs with the phased-in ban on field burning, said Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council.
Grass seed prices are about half what they were 12 to 14 months ago, he said. Back then, annual ryegrass — a variety commonly grown in the Willamette Valley — could fetch 30 cents a pound, Beyer said. Today, it sells for about 17 to 18 cents a pound.
An increasing number of them are converting some acreage to wheat.
"And farmers are telling me every day that they'll convert more next year unless prices for grass seed improve," Beyer said.
Advocates of rebuilding the "local food system" to bring locally grown foods — including staples such as beans and grains from field to table — say that's a positive trend, and something they've encouraged for the past few years.
Harry MacCormack, who operates Sunbow Farm, an organic farm west of Corvallis, is a member of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project.
He's experimenting with growing a variety of beans and grains and thinks there's a future for grass seed farmers to convert at least a portion of their fields to produce these food staples.
"What's going to have to happen is these guys who've been into the massive grass seed acreage are going to have to figure out how to do at least some food," he said.
That idea was a hard sell when grass seed prices were higher and grass seed farmers had little financial incentive to change, he said. But now they're more receptive.
"The banks have stopped loaning on grass seed," MacCormack said. "They were willing to loan on beans and grains."
About 90,000 to 120,000 acres of wheat — mostly soft white wheat used for making tortillas and pasta, not bread, is being harvested this year, estimates Jim Peterson, a wheat breeder at Oregon State University.
More than 150,000 to 175,000 acres "is not unrealistic" for the coming year, he said. Grass seed is grown on about 480,000 acres in the Willamette Valley.
Wheat prices have fallen from historic highs topping $10 a bushel, set about 18 months ago, he said. Those prices were related to speculation in the market that pumped prices artificially high, Peterson said.
Now the Portland price for soft white winter wheat is at about $5 a bushel.
Counting shipping costs, that's the break-even point, or a slight loss, for many farmers, said Dan Armstrong, a councilor on the Lane County Food Policy Council.