To make sustainability a reality, small producers might have to forge new coalitions—even with industrial giants
Wheat is not something I think about a lot. Sure, I prefer unbleached flour, and I vacillate between buying white and whole wheat, but, as with most things in food, when I began digging a little I realized wheat has a complicated life story.
One guy who has a lot of wheat history to share is Karl Kupers. Like many farmers I've met, he's homey but also sophisticated, a combination that seems necessary in an ever-consolidating world of farming.
Rather than buy up neighbors' acreage to become large-scale himself, however, Karl and his toweringly tall friend Fred Fleming formed a cooperative relationship 10 years ago with other farmers in Washington State and created Shepherd's Grain. Over 75 families—some of them even farming cooperatively with each other—sell portions of their wheat crop every year to this entity.
Besides joining forces to have some control over pricing, Shepherd's Grain is founded on the belief that not tilling wheat fields builds richer and deeper topsoil. Karl's view of no-till wheat farming is to "plant the seed, feed the soil." He is quick to point out how this approach is a paradigm shift from the now-more conventional practice of "plant the seed, feed the seed" (with chemicals). The co-op's approach has earned Shepherd's Grain's Food Alliance certification for sustainable farming and a "Growing Green" award from the Natural Resources Defense Council.