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Going with the grain

As rain pelts the metal roof of the tool shop at Dunbar Farms, intensifying the sound inside, David Mostue patiently awaits the next window of opportunity to harvest his latest wheat crop.

Mostue had hoped to begin harvesting 15 acres beyond Pierce Road in east Medford Sunday, but he took waiting another 24 hours during a thunderstorm in stride, turning his attention to the more mundane aspects of fixing stuff in the shop and talking farm agronomics.

Grain doesn't generally roll off tongues when Jackson County agricultural pursuits are discussed, ranking behind pears, grapes and hay on Oregon Agriculture Department's crop list. Yet, Mostue has developed a local market for his wheat and soon will have a grain processing and mill facility up and running.

"Grain is really, really suited to this region," says the fourth-generation farmer. "Of all the crops we have grown, grain is by far the crop that is most suited to this climate. What really makes the grains suited to this area is that even before the drought, this was a dry summer area. We get our moisture typically in the winter."

Wheat and other grains thrive in the foggy, somewhat wet winter and spring conditions and are harvested during the dry summer months.

"We don't want moisture that's going to cause any germination to begin," Mostue said. "By us usually having dependable hot, dry summers, that means I can go to almost any piece of property in this area that has good soil and I don't need irrigation to grow a really good crop. In the middle of a drought year ... you can go to pieces of land that people can't do other things with and you can really grow good grain crops as long as you're treating the soil well."

Oregon annually grows a million acres of wheat, of which 85 percent is exported, said Tana Simpson, associate administrator for the Oregon Wheat Commission.

"There is increasing interest in growing local or using local wheat," Simpson said. "There are some new markets developing in the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, specifically for wheat and barley products."

Those developing producers are raising hard red winter and hard red spring wheat, she said. "It typically is better for holding a larger loaf together."

Mostue actually scaled back the amount of wheat he planted this year, mixing in other grain crops. 

"We can overproduce even where we are right now," he said. "We haven't got all of our systems really dialed in yet. We're just about there, and there are going to be a lot of changes in the grain thing if we can actually find a lot of new markets."

Rise Up Artisan Bread in Jacksonville and SunStone Bakery in Ashland are his primary customers, with restaurants and retail buyers also consuming the fruits of his labor.

"Grain equipment is very efficient," Mostue said. "Once you have your systems in place and you have dependable equipment, you can scale up pretty quickly. It's nice to know you can do that without a lot of additional work."

The rise of smaller growers doesn't factor heavily in government figures or sway commodity prices, but artisan bakers and craft brewers are attracted to those growers.

"They see the value of sourcing local ingredients and then marketing those attributes," said Oregon Agriculture Department spokesman Bruce Pokarney. "It's a niche that has grown in the last 10 to 15 years. Before that, there were only a few pioneers a decade or two ago."

There is a world of difference between the grain sewn and harvested here compared to the sprawling wheat fields in the wide open country east of the Cascades. In Jackson County there is relatively little farmland, and it's surrounded by timbered hills, creating different dynamics than in Central and Eastern Oregon and up into Washington, where wheat is grown for export and price is determined by commodity markets.

"We're not basing our costs and type of production off commodity price," Mostue said. "We could never meet a commodity price, frankly. Our grain is completely aimed away from the commodity (market). We set the pricing ourselves or work really closely with the bakeries or our direct-sale customers."

Most of Central and Eastern Oregon grain growers raise soft white wheat for export to Japan and China, where it becomes livestock feed, Mostue said.

"A minimal amount is turned into pastry flour or pasta," he said. "Very little of that is bound for direct food consumption and very, very little for domestic consumption."

With the vast majority of his wheat milled into bread flour and baked into bread, Mostue said even if the scale is much smaller, the margins are much better.

Mostue began planting wheat, along with barley and oats, around 2010 in a two-fold approach to improve the farm's economic structure and enhance local diets.

"My whole goal in choosing farming as a profession is to solve food security, or find a way to economically produce and sell virtually all the types of food we eat," he said. "We had been growing produce primarily, and we knew we had this large farm ... and had soils, generally speaking, heavier than what worked well for produce. The grain thing, at the time, was the next thing I wanted to tackle. It's been an odyssey to learn and to figure out."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.

Dunbar Farms wheat awaits harvesting in east Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch