Farm to Table | Shepherd’s Grain

Farm to Table | Shepherd’s Grain

Karl Kupers and Fred Fleming, the founders of Shepherd’s Grain, believe that farming is more than just a vocation, and much more than just a business. Farming, for them, begins and ends with an all-consuming passion. This fundamental fervor pervades the entire vision of their company. In fact, some of the copy that Shepherd’s Grain has produced reads like a manual for an arcane rite of passage: “You have to have the willingness to come to the new land and burn your ship, so there’s no way of going back home to the old ways”. Theirs is a grand rhetoric worthy of a Sunday school sermon.

And yet speaking to Mike Moran, the general manager of Shepherd’s Grain, I hear a heartfelt commitment to the same deep-seated cause. Mike illustrates the context to their philosophy: “the farm-to-table movement was funded on the principle of reconnecting people to the source of their food. Every grower who raises wheat for Shepherd’s Grain uses sustainable farming methods. Furthermore, every grower either already is or is on the way to becoming certified by Food Alliance (a third party audit)”.

In the late 90’s, as Mike describes it, the distribution option of connecting farms directly to restaurants was first emerging as a trend. This new direction initially started with vegetables on the west side of the valley. When Shepherd’s Grain noticed, they wanted to extend the same values to dry-land agriculture (i.e. seeds and grains).

Mike underscores several farm-to-table values which Shepherd’s Grain has since built its business around, such as: 1) a focus on soil health – which encourages each of its growers to pursue a Food Alliance certification; 2) traceability — every bag of their product can be traced back to the farm that grew it; and 3) fair pay for its growers — all of its growers are paid on the basis of their cost of production (which isn’t as logical as it seems).  “If you’re not a Shepherd’s Grain grower,” Mike explains, “you’re currently getting paid about half of what you would have been back in November 2014”.

Shepherd’s Grain initially started with six growers. They’ve since expanded to 38 growers. The biggest challenge that they face has to do with the fact that a grower’s cost of wheat is frequently higher than the commodity price. The Chicago Board of Trade determines what the daily price is for wheat. But unfortunately this price is not directly related to farmers’ costs of production. However, Shepherd’s Grain feels that “the more they can communicate to consumers the value of what they do, the more people will make decisions to find them”.

The value of the Shepherd’s Grain growing process begins with what they don’t do with their soil. Tillage farming, which is the norm for big agriculture these days, was first created as a method to control disease and pest. Big agriculture’s intentions were good – we couldn’t possibly have fed so many people without such a large-scale model.  The problem with tillage farming, however, is that it introduces oxygen and sunlight into the soil, which sterilizes the microbial activity within – thus reducing the soil’s biological fertility. The no-tillage model, however, leaves the land undisturbed, allowing the rhizosphere (the top layer of soil where the digestion occurs – like a human’s GI tract) to do a better job cycling nutrients and suppressing disease.

Meanwhile, the no-till method has been more widely adopted in other countries (e.g. Chile, Argentina, Australia). The quality of ingredients that a farm produces always depends on the type of soil that it uses. “But soil on its own,” Mike clarifies, “is just dirt – a sterile substrate. Dirt only turns into soil through the presence of microbial action”. It’s important, therefore, to rebuild the vigor of soil through the presence of microbial life.

The no-till method is finally gaining rapid acceptance in the U.S. When Shepherd’s Grain first started, only something like 19% of United States farmers used a no-till method; now that number is closer to 35%. But that number still pales when we consider that something like 95% of growers in Alberta, Canada, use a no-till method. Clearly we have a way to go yet. The challenge is rebuilding soil that has been depleted for decades through conventional practices.

While talking with Mike Moran, I found myself wondering why more farms haven’t adopted a no-tillage process. Well, apparently it’s a difficult transition from tillage to a no-till model – often taking seven years before a farmer will ever see benefits. Rebuilding soil biology is a surprisingly long process.

Yet the danger of continuing with the tilling method, according to Mike, is that we’ll have no soil to use within the next 50 to 100 years! Through water and wind erosion, farms slowly loose top-soil (an unfortunate by-product of tillage farming). No-tilling, by contrast, actually increases the land’s water absorption and temperature buffering capacity. Furthermore, it improves the presence of earthworms and other macroscopic decomposers, and increases habitat (which birds and other species rely on for survival). No-tilling also has positive climate benefits: sequestering carbon in the soil so that it’s not released into the atmosphere.

Just in case you couldn’t glean the struggle from the narrative above, it’s a difficult time to be a wheat grower in the United States. Furthermore, Mike is concerned about what appears to be the demise of the American farmer: “The average farmer in the U.S. is 59 years old. And that number is currently on the rise.  The problem is compounded by the fact that fewer children of farmers are staying in agriculture. The average Shepherd’s Grain farmer, however, is 45 years old”. Mike attributes this differential to the type of practice and production model employed by Shepherd’s Grain, which allow people to farm properly and sustain their livelihood for longer.

Nature doesn’t use monocultures or tillage methods on its own though. So sustainable practices, which look to nature for guidance, attempt to build resilience back into the system by modeling after its immaculate muse. As stewards of the land, Shepherd’s Grain farmers attempt to do less to the land, so nature can do more. All in all, sustainable farming practices may lighten certain labor loads, but are often more management intensive.

Since no irrigation is used in the Shepherd’s Grain growing process, their crop relies heavily on natural moisture. The land determines what can be grown. Every farm, therefore, is unique; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to farming. Considering the variables associated with landscape and climate, the farming process quickly becomes complex.

Shepherd’s Grain would like to ensure the long-term viability of farms which operate without the use of government subsidies. But without the subsidies, farms require a predictable income in order to ensure stable prices for its consumers. As helpful as farm subsidies can be, Mike cautions against the complacency that they can breed: “And that’s the risk, when you grow and deliver beyond direct connection with your consumer”.

Ultimately, Mike doesn’t consider Shepherd’s Grain to be a wheat producer as much as a food producer. The wisest farmer, he suggests, appreciates the fact that they grow food: a life-giving product to be eaten rather than a mere product to be sold. Regardless of your age or vocation, Shepherd’s Grain urges us to think about the future: the resources we’re leaving for future generations. It’s their land to inherit.

Written by Todd B. Gruel