Small grains are an established part of Pacific Northwest agriculture and food system. Wheat is by far the most important small grain crop in the Pacific Northwest, with over 3 million acres harvested across Washington and Oregon. Most of that wheat is conventionally grown, and approximately 90% of it is exported out of the region.
The two most economically and ecologically important trends emerging in this sector are 1) the rise of no-till farming and related practices of conservation tillage, and 2) the increasing diversity and complexity of crop rotations. These two interrelated sets of farming practices make up a range of alternative small grain production systems that vary within the region, based on local differences in temperature and precipitation. Accompanying no-till or conservation tillage wheat are a group of differentiated, high-value varieties of small grains, oilseeds, and legumes grown as rotation crops.
To get to the scale needed to sell into mass markets, the Pacific Northwest no-till wheat and rotation crops industry will require investment in processing infrastructure for diverse grain, oilseed, and legume crops that is accessible for small- to mid-size producers; investment in commercialization of rotational crops with potentially high nutritional and commercial value; and increased funding of marketing and storytelling efforts explaining the benefits of no-till crops for ecology, economics, and nutrition.
The good news for eaters and investors alike is that there is already burgeoning momentum toward no till, conservation tillage, and crop rotation production systems in the Northwest, led primarily by farmers in eastern Washington. Experimentation over the last 20 years in seed varieties, equipment, seeding and harvesting methods, processing, pricing, and marketing have created a rich foundation from which to scale. That said, as a 2008 article in Scientific American puts it: “No-till is not a cure-all; such a thing does not exist in agriculture. Rather it is part of a larger, evolving vision of sustainable agriculture, in which a diversity of farming methods from no-till to organic - and combinations thereof - is considered healthy.”
For more detail on the economics of small grains production in the Pacific Northwest download Production Analysis: Grains in the sidebar.
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