When Kasey White and Jeff Broadie started Lonesome Whistle Farm in 2003, they grew a wide range of fresh foods like most other farmers in the region. Visit their farmers market stall or website today, and there’s nary a tomato or strawberry in sight. Instead, visitors will see confetti-colored polenta, salt-and-pepper speckled rye flour, rolled oats, and pink and black popcorn.
White and Broadie were only a few years into farming when they switched almost entirely to storage crops like beans, grains, popcorn and garlic. Their reasons for such a dramatic departure? Predictability and passion, White says. Storage crops provide a regular source of income throughout the year, sheltering them from the boom and bust cycles that are so common for many farmers.
In addition, growing beans, grains and similar crops allows them to meet a host of other goals and contribute to Lane County’s food system in new and exciting ways.
Nutrient-dense, genetically diverse foods a priority
Lonesome Whistle Farm was home to many different types of vegetables during its inaugural years, “but we started realizing there was a lot of competition,” White says. “There was also a lot of perishability. You end up composting a lot of stuff.”
They quickly shifted to storage crops like garlic, squash and potatoes. Broadie also planted some grains, beans and heirloom popcorn, and White says they fell in love with them. Storage crops solved the perishability problem and gave them something to sell year-round, which made cash flow more predictable.
Growing beans and grains organically also helped Lonesome Whistle Farm meet another important goal. “We’re trying to preserve the availability of high nutrition storage crops locally,” White says. “There’s a lot of quality and freshness that comes from supporting that.
White and Broadie source seeds from companies dedicated to preserving genetic diversity, including the Seed Savers Exchange and Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, as well as friends and farmers from the region, country and across the world. That means they grow some unusual and interesting products. Their black Dakota popcorn, which they pop and sell fresh at farmers markets, has long been their signature product. Rolled oats are a new offering this year, but their great taste and toothsome texture has made them extremely popular.
Lonesome Whistle Farm also sells a pink pearl popcorn; corn flour and polenta made from multi-colored Abenaki corn; whole wheat and rye flour and berries; and a cereal with mixed rolled grains. Their pinto, black turtle, red jewel, vintage pink and other beans sell out quickly thanks to a twelve month CSA program. White uses several different colors of beans to make earrings (or what she likes to refer to as “cultivation jewelry”).
Overcoming the learning curve
Eugene’s Camas Country Mill grinds Lonesome Whistle’s rye and wheat flour. White and Broadie process all of their remaining products themselves. Handling their crops from seed to sale did present some hurdles in the beginning, White admits. They had to locate some fairly obsolete equipment, finance it and learn how to use it.
Now that they’re set up to process their beans, corn and other crops, their products are staying local and they can earn a better living. They’re no longer dependent on selling into the international commodity market, “which is a race to the bottom for the farmer,” White says.
Learning to farm these less-common crops has also been a challenge – one that White and Broadie have overcome thanks to a combination of old-fashioned and new-fangled methods. “We’ve learned a lot on YouTube and by going online and doing searches,” White says. “A lot of it’s been trial and error. A lot of it’s been self-taught.”
They’ve also asked for advice from other local farmers, attended conferences and gotten involved in local efforts to promote storage crops. The most notable is the Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project. This multi-faceted effort, which started around 2007, looked for ways to encourage farmers to grow more storage crops; develop processing capacity so that locally-grown crops could stay in the Willamette Valley instead of entering the international commodity market; and create markets for these crops.
Lonesome Whistle Farms is helping demonstrate that if local farmers can produce beans, grains and other dry goods, consumers will buy them. Their work to provide locals with healthy, genetically diverse products is adding another layer of security to Lane County’s food system. Perhaps best of all, they’re giving cooks and bakers new and delicious ingredients for their creations. Try not to smile when you cut open a loaf of multi-colored cornbread, or pour locally-grown oats into your cereal in the morning. We suspect you won’t be able to resist.
Photo credits: Barb Magee