The Value-added Middle Ground

My next stop on this 2,167-mile journey is Portland, where I had dinner with a clothing-designer friend of mine, Nancy. She specializes in organic fabrics and just had a show at the Bonaroo Music Festival.  Here are a few of her designs.

In creating these beautiful items, she found it quite difficult sourcing organic, sustainably produced cloth. At the same time, I’m talking with farmers raising heirloom animals that are trimmed every year for their fleece. These include sheep, alpacas, and goat fleeces. Yet they can’t sell them because so few mills are turning the fleece into cloth. We have supply and we have demand, but we are missing the small manufacturers crucial to filling in the puzzle.

This type of problem is endemic throughout the growing sustainable-farming community. This is why we are working on a project to create the Port Susan Food & Farming Center which will provide a way for farmers to create value-added products from the produce they grow. In other words, they can grow berries for a few weeks in early summer, process them into jam, and be able to sell that throughout the year. With the proper facilities, produce can be frozen, canned, pickled, cooked or preserved into all the fun things we like to have on-hand for year-round cooking.

So, my question to you is this: do you know of small mills where we can do the same thing for fleece? It would be great to bring producers and designers together, and what we need is the manufacturer who can do this.

Dancing Cows and Water Buffalos

Driving down a highway in central Oregon, there are certain things I expect to see. I will see cows, horses, fruit trees, maybe a vineyard, and a fossil bed or two. What I didn’t expect to see was a large herd of Asian water buffalo. I first noticed that they were the wrong color, sort of a bluish-gray dun. They were the wrong shape to be Herefords or Angus and the horns were in a strange formation.  It dawned on me that these were water buffalos. I nearly wrecked the car, rubber-necking to get another view. I never realized that these buffalo could grow to be 2600 pounds. They were huge!

Once I was able to go online, I found that they were owned by the Pilot Butte Ranch, a traditional ranch run by the Breese family since 1856. They had diversified into Asian Water Buffalo. They found them well-suited to the ranch and had flourished there. The Central Oregonian published a story on them and what their experience has been with these curious animals. It’s a great read.

The next morning, which broke gray and rainy, I was off to the opening day of the Prineville Farmers Market. It was a soggy, messy, drippy, mandatory-raincoat day, which meant, sadly, that few people attended. However, those that were there, the die-hard, early season purchasers, were very intent on getting their vegies before becoming completely soaked. The farmers, under their white tents, were quite gregarious and happy to see visitors, inviting us out of the rain to sample some great cheeses, taste some fresh vegies, and smell some fragrant soaps.

I met Cythia Graves from Mini Flerd Farm and talked with her about her custom-made soaps. She will enthusiastically make them with “a scent you’d like to see in a soap” and displayed many creative combinations, such as pearberry. I added myself to her email list and later discovered that she writes directly to her customers, giving her correspondence a very personal touch. That is a pleasant change from all the canned email I get.

I then talked with Jerre Kosta and Sean Dodson from Dancing Cow Farm. They raise both vegetables and heritage livestock breeds interdependently. Most of the animals they keep are listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy List, which keeps tabs on breeds we may be in danger of losing. I really enjoyed chatting with them about the holistic and fully integrated methods they use in growing both plants and animals. Since I am unable to be vegetarian, (see my earlier posting on this subject), I am always interested in well-raised meat sources and how others view this. Sean’s blog, I found, is well written and has some interesting points to make about living and working on a farm and how that farm fits into the greater scheme of things within the universe.

It’s astounding that I only spent one night in central Oregon and yet found all these amazing farms and ranches. The drive across the state on Highway 26 is, really, beautiful. Unlike the eastern side of Washington, it is more forested, has higher rainfall, and the farms seem to be more diversified. That may just be my impression, but I found myself falling a little in love with that side of the state. I may have to plan a longer road trip to the area for my not-too-distant future.

Observations from the Road

When I was three, my family and I flew a Cessna 172 from Anchorage to Florida, stopping to visit every relative we knew. When I was twelve, sitting in the back seat of the car, heading over the mountains, while teasing my sister, was a standard recipe for summer. When I was 17, I went on a road trip from Tacoma to Kansas City and back. I’ve driven all around the South from coastal towns to the Mississippi delta to deep Appalachian hollas. I’ve driven the West Coast north to south and back again so many times, I’ve lost count. Road-tripping is in my blood. I’ve crossed the continent and been to every state in the union, save one. I’ve even been to most of the Canadian provinces.

Right now, I’m traveling through the group of four northwestern states, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. I’m finding the landscape little changed, but the circumstances under which people are living has changed. Here are some observations:

  • I’m seeing clean, well-kept trailer parks with community food gardens planted in the common areas.
  • Church grounds now have food gardens in them, growing crops for parishioners and food banks.
  • Clean, well-kept towns, are welcoming visitors with open arms, desperate for tourist dollars.
  • Locals are supporting local businesses and farms, farmers markets, and CSAs as much as they possibly can.

What I’m not seeing are places to buy and eat the regional crops I so loved as a child. We would all pile into our car and cross the Cascades in search of locally grown apples, cherries, pears, and other tree fruit. Local restaurants would serve them in endless varieties of recipes, coaxing tourists from all over the state to visit. Then, in the 70’s, we noticed that Golden Delicious apples weren’t quite so delicious, and the smaller farms were being bought up by bigger conglomerates. Local fruit was exported. We found it at our grocery stores, no longer as fresh as it was. We stopped heading east for fruit. We stopped visiting entirely.

As I’m traveling through these western states, in the summer of 2011, I’m eating at diners that serve what every restaurant serves, namely food service fare. I don’t see any regional produce, with some exceptions at farmers markets. To find local producers, you really have to search. Small farms dried up out here and are only slowly coming back with organic, bio-diverse, and sustainable farming techniques. It’s only a trickle, though.

One other trend that’s interesting is the growth of Amish communities in the West. They have been buying up the small farms that faltered and making them work in quite a successful way.  (There’s a community north of Eureka in Montana.) They will never be rich: they don’t really want to be. But they can feed, house, and cloth themselves with a little to spare for selling. Because of their community-based, sustainable way of farming, their farms are working.

Grain Maker

You’re a manufacturer of high-quality products, specifically made for families and small enterprises. You don’t have a huge advertising budget. How do you get the word out to a specialized market that you have something they’ll want? You do what Grain Maker has done.

First, Grain Maker designs and manufactures an all-steel grain mill that can be run by a hand crank, direct-drive motor, or by bicycle power. I was able to play with it while visiting their Montana shop and was really impressed with how it worked. It’s a very solid, well-crafted machine that turns out beautiful bread-making flour quite quickly, even with my slow cranking. (It actually grinds all kinds of things, including legumes, dried onions, and even peanut butter, but I just played with the whole wheat.) It comes in two sizes: one with a 6-cup hopper and one with a 10-cup hopper.

Second, advertise in the print media most associated with your target audience. In this case, they use periodicals that cater to small farms, bakers specializing in whole grains, and families interested in healthy foods, sustainability, and self-sufficiency.

Third, create an online presence that includes a website, complete with an online store, and information on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Last, but not least, have someone in-house handling all of the online information, coordinating website updates and responding quickly to social media input. That’s how you get the word out. It seems to be working since sales are good.

Oh, and the Grain Maker mill comes in my favorite color, red. You can have any color you like, so long as it’s red. Red’s a good color.

Traveling with Rick

In planning my trek about the countryside, I asked my friend Rick if he’d like to go with me. It’s always more fun to travel with someone and he’s an amiable type. After a week of driving, we’ve fallen into a rather streamlined routine that’s working pretty well.

Today, as he was driving, I said, “Do you think that Slate Creek has a lot of slate in it?”

“Um, yep.”

After a minute, I said, “That’s going to be the extent of our intellectual discourse for the day, isn’t it?”

“Um, yep”.

Love traveling with the guy…

Learning from a Master

Cathi with Brisk and Solven

I had a wonderful time visiting with Dr. Doug Hammill and Cathi Greatorex in Eureka. I was able to meet their fabulous horses: the Suffolk Punches, the Fjords, Misty the Clydesdale, a Welsh pony, and Cody. We then had “dissolve your spoon” coffee (my favorite) and talked about internet tools and teaching about draft horses.

One interesting aspect to younger farmers is that they are treating new technologies much as older folks treat indoor plumbing or lawn mowers, as just another tool. Since they’ve grown up with it, there just isn’t a technological divide in their minds about how to use it. So, when they want to find out about a subject, what’s the first thing they do? They look it up online. Periodicals, which have been the traditional way to advertise farming services, are not the first resource for younger farmers although they do read them for a deeper understanding of things. To pass on the type of skills Doc Hammill has about draft horses to a new generation, an online presence is almost mandatory. Social media skills are rather important, too.

Doc with Kate and Ann

Doc driving Kate and Ann

There are several websites devoted to young farmers, including Greenhorns, Earthineer,  and the WA Young Farmers Coalition, (click on the Small Farm Resources link above for more on these). I encourage those who have years of experience to try to reach  them there. Cathi mentioned one thing keeping folks from enhancing their online presence: they simply want to be outside farming. Their passion is not sitting behind a computer screen. It’s riding behind a horse, plowing a furrow. It’s planting or harvesting. It’s not learning html. Are there any shortcuts to getting your business online? I think so, and I’ll share what I have learned in a later post.

Doc and Cathi have many great stories to tell (and if you attend one of their workshops, you’ll get to hear many of them). The best was this:  Amish kids have discovered battery-powered LED lights and have been adding them to their buggies. There’s nothing stranger than seeing a pimped-out buggy going down the road, lights a’blazing.

If you want to learn more about working with draft horses or perhaps attending one of Doc Hammill’s workshops, go to: Doc Hammill Horsemanship. He is the best trainer I’ve worked with.


Here I am in Eureka Montana, enjoying amazing broadband connectivity from my little cabin in the woods. I’m absolutely floored by this. This corner of the West has broadband and excellent speed to go with it. Who knew?

Cell phone coverage, on the other hand, is completely non-existant. The only provider out here is Verizon. AT&T, apparently, pulled their towers from this region and left their customers without coverage. When you say T-mobile, everyone here says, “Who?” So, my phone is useless.

But I can Skype! I think I’ll go download a movie now. Hee hee…

Sustainability Fair

This last weekend I attended the Mother Earth News Fair which included all things having to do with sustainability. I found interesting vendors, new ideas, and amazing books. I met Dan Adams who, after discovering that there was no sustainability community online, created one. It is and even though it is still in beta, it’s a very active community. I joined.

Seattle Tilth was there sharing information on all the programs they do in King County. They have a Refugee Farming program, through their United People’s Farm Incubator, that I found intriguing. They combine empty urban land with those who have come to Seattle as refugees from other countries. Many have nothing when they get here and farming was all they knew in their former lives. Several farms are now successfully selling at farmer’s markets throughout King County.

So Delicious, one of my favorite companies, was giving away samples of ice cream made with coconut milk. For someone allergic to both milk and soy, this is a great way to beat the heat. I use their coffee creamers constantly.

Other highlights included a lovely yellow Tesla electric sports car, many models of tiny houses, a draft horse logging exhibition, lots of guest speakers including Ed Begley, Jr., thousands of books on sustainability, and good organic food vendors.

If you get the chance to go to this fair, do it! It’s happening in San Rafael, CA and in Pennsylvania, both in September.