There are only a few tables at Randy’s Main Street café, but this is where the small community of Brownsville, Oregon, gathers to sort out the world’s problems and, sometimes, hatch some pretty big ideas.
Willow Coberly and Harry Stalford, the owners and operators of Stalford Seed Farms, have had many conversations around these tables as they were developing ways to grow, mill, sell and distribute local wheat, even when everyone told them they’d never make it work in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This is also where last week USDA’s Director for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Max Finberg and USDA Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker joined Willow and Harry to hear about the steps – and risks – they took to bring wheat back into the local food system. Joining them were organic farming pioneer and co-founder of Oregon Tilth, Harry MacCormack of Sunbow Farm; Pam Silbernagel, a regional economic development specialist with Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments; and Dan Sundseth of Ten Rivers Food Web, a nonprofit organization that works with three Oregon counties to increase locally grown food to help build resilient food systems within their communities.
Over a delicious breakfast of locally grown and milled wheat pancakes from Greenwillow Grains (Yes, you can taste the difference, and the mill is only a few steps away from the restaurant), prepared by none other than Willow Coberly herself, the group discussed local food systems as a regional food security and economic development strategy.
Like many growers in the Willamette Valley, Stalford Seed Farms was at one time dedicated exclusively to grass seed production, a profitable non-food crop during the housing boom. With the housing market in a slump, and the desire to rebuild local food systems with organic and transitional products, Harry and Willow dedicated some of their land to growing wheat, both the hard red variety for breads, and the soft white variety for pastries, pancakes and cookies. They teamed up with several other area producers as Willamette Seed & Grain, and collectively these growers now produce enough grain to supply a commercial-scale bread company in the region.
In addition, Willow Coberly began a small milling operation in the small, historic town of Brownsville. The mill employs three full-time and five part-time employees in this town of less than 1700 people, and creates a value-added product that is sold in local outlets and farmers markets. Willow also insists on paying her employees a living wage. All this is good news for Mayor Don Ware, who was proud to mention the city has a farmers’ market for six months out of the year.
Efforts like this help large and small growers secure a fair price for sustainably grown local food, creates economic opportunity through processing jobs and other “food businesses,” and keeps more of the community’s food dollars in the region. Supporting and encouraging these efforts is part of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.
As these local producers are cultivating an economically viable local foodshed, they are investing in keeping the community fed. They regularly dedicate a portion of their flour and their surplus to local food banks, and they continue meeting at Randy’s Main Street Café to work on solving the world’s problems, one community at a time.
“We are moving beyond the emergency food box mentality and becoming a community that truly takes care of itself,” Sundseth commented.