by Katy McCoy
“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain!“ Was I the only one who had this play in their head driving up Center Valley this summer?
Fields of tall grain swaying in the breeze on the historic Brown family dairy with the Olympic Mountains and new fire station as a backdrop. Jaw-dropping and it got me to thinking: I’ve got to talk to Finnriver’s Keith Kisler and get the scoop on this development. (Truth be known, I have an ulterior motive. The first local food I fell in love with upon arriving here was the now defunct Finnriver pancake mix, and I’m desperately hoping this Center Valley vista portends its return.)
So I called him. Turns out Keith grew up on a 3000 acre wheat farm in Warden, WA on the western edge of the Palouse. His Dad’s side of the family (3 generations before Keith) immigrated to Washington from the Volga River District of Russia. They in turn descended from German wheat farmers given land and many other rights by Catherine the Great in an effort to spur agricultural growth and stability in Russia during the 1700s. Today, Keith’s brother and extended family continue to farm the Warden family “plot” using conventional practices along with conservation methods to grow wheat, buckwheat, dry beans, canola, and sometimes potatoes.
It’s an oft-repeated story. Farmers’ kid grows up, imagines “higher calling”, leaves family farm behind… Keith left according to script, started college, but the plot began to wobble as he took a course in global studies. He claims his world “cracked” when he began to fully appreciate how family farms were being threatened by the rise of corporate farming conglomerates. At first he imagined himself becoming a teacher around these issues, but fast forward a few years (he’s married to Crystie, raising a family, and finds himself living on a spectacularly wonderful farm in Chimacum) and he’s come full circle. He’s now deeply drawn to the growing side of farming — and not surprisingly to growing grain. Whether we credit childhood nostalgia, a multi-generational Kisler wheat affinity, or simply the mesmerizing effect that a mature wheat field can have on one’s psyche, Keith finds himself most grounded and content these days on a combine.
Many of us don’t realize, but there is a long tradition of growing and milling wheat in Western Washington that pretty much disappeared thanks to modern industrial farming methods, federal commodity programs, and the rise of corporate baking. Whidbey Island used to grow wheat on over 1000 acres and actually at one point set a world record for bushels of wheat grown per acre! When I interviewed old-timer Bill Purnell a few years ago about what it was like to grow up in Chimacum, he said it used to be mainly dairies (each with about 30 cows) and wheat fields. Start looking around Chimacum, and you’ll notice a lot of old silos. As a boy, Bill’s family use to grow wheat on large swaths of Protection Island. The Sequim prairie, rich in topsoil and minerals, is another place particularly suited to growing wheat, so much so that the town invested in a huge expensive silo in 1940. But for most of the last decades, I believe the Adolfsen family was was the last in Sequim still growing grains. That is until Nash Huber and Sam McCullough, working with WSU and the Organic Seed Alliance began experimenting rotating wheat crops with their organic vegetable crops as a way to increase soil fertility and manage pests naturally.
Keith first tried his hand at growing grains on the peninsula using organic methods four summers ago. He faced a steep learning curve the first two years as he leased various plots in the county and learned the different techniques required to grow grains in Western as opposed to Eastern WA. The second year he got completely rained out — most of his crop molded or sprouted in the field and he had to plow it under. The third year he began farming on the Brown farm property, and things seemed to click into place. He enjoyed its ample acreage, prime soils, good drainage, and the proximity to home. Between the new location, lessons learned the hard way, and finding the right combine, his crops began to thrive. This last summer (Keith’s fourth) brought him sustained sun, lack of early rains, new confidence, and his best yields yet.
What did he grow? Rye, a rye/vetch mixture, spring and winter varieties of barley, and a hard red winter wheat. Right now he’s growing the rye and rye/vetch mixture for cover crop seed, which we’re selling at the Corner (see link “Finnriver’s Cover Crop SEED FROM HERE”). The barley and wheat are going to animal feed. He’s also been assisting OSA and WSU with their experiments growing 40 varieties of barley seed and 30 varieties of quinoa, hunting for the most nutritious protein-dense grains suited to our marine environment.
But this is just the start as there are lots of grain schemes sifting around in Keith’s head (including YES — the “promised” return of my beloved pancake mix!) First however Finnriver needs to get a WSDA milling license for human consumption and then they’ll begin milling bread and rye flours for sale and… to make Dented Buoy pizza crusts! When it comes to barley, they’ve already sent samples to the small artisan malting company, Skagit Valley Malting, with hopes of growing barley for local breweries. (I had to ask what malting was. It is essentially roasting the barley to caramelize the sugars once the barley has been sprouted, then dried). Keith is also hoping to grow quinoa, oats, and field peas both for animal and human feed. And finally (well, probably not finally), there is “Camelina” an oil seed crop especially high in omega-3 fatty acids that when fed to cattle and chickens, increases their omega-3 fatty acids as well.
Now you know everything I do about those Center Valley amber waves of grain. But there’s one more thing. What’s up with the historic Brown family farm property now that Mount Townsend Creamery is no longer going to relocate there? Good news! Finnriver is leasing it for the next 5 years with aspirations to buy it. They are committed to returning the property to its agricultural glory, planting apple orchards, growing grains and mixed crops, raising critters, as well as working with other farmers and farming organizations to look at sharing land there for research and education. Down the road a few years, Finnriver dreams of relocating their tasting room and community event space to this more central location.
We at the Corner couldn’t be more delighted with our new neighbors and we wish Keith and the whole Finnriver crew the best of luck.
Now I WANT my pancakes!
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Read about Finnriver Cover Crop SEED FROM HERE
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