I’m slow this summer, so forgive me. I know we’re half-way through August and I’m just posting my July Farming in Focus. That’s life. I’m just happy I’m getting to this at all with two kids running around my legs all summer!!
At the end of last month I visited my friend Marie Bowers Stagg’s farm just north of Eugene to see how they harvest wheat. Then, earlier this week I got to tag along with her husband Tristan as he delivered almost 60,000 pounds of wheat to the grain elevator in Portland. Read on to see my adventures – and as a reward, if you make it to the end you’ll get to see how blueberries are harvested by machine! I finally caught back up with last month’s blueberry farmer in Albany and got to climb aboard a mechanical blueberry harvester!
Bowers Stagg (who blogs at Oregon Green) is a fifth generation grass seed farmer on her family’s nearly 100-year old farm in the Willamette Valley. Her family primarily grows annual rye grass seed on a few thousand acres, but they also grow about 500 acres of wheat, 200 acres of meadowfoam, and this year grew about 50 acres of forage peas for cover crop. As is the case for all farmers, one of the most challenging aspects of farming is dealing with the unknown of the weather. This spring and summer in Oregon have been extremely hot and dry, so much so that it’s the first year Bowers Stagg has had to carry around a water tank in the bed of her truck everywhere she goes in case something catches on fire. Dry wheat is highly flammable and Bowers Stagg told me merely a spark from hitting a rock in the field with the combine can catch the wheat stubble on fire, something that happened in July on their farm. When I was visiting, Bowers Stagg had to stop to spray water on a compost pile consisting of leftover combine remains that ignited itself.
One of Bowers Stagg’s primary concerns this year is fire hazard, but the heat and dry weather have also impacted their (and almost all farmers she knows) yield. This year their wheat yields are down about 30-50 percent. The last field they harvested yielded about half of what it did the previous two years. Not only that, but because it was such a dry spring, the amount of protein in the wheat is higher than it usually is, which may sound like a good thing but it’s not. Eastern Oregon is expected to grow high-protein wheat because it’s always dry there, but western Oregon is expected to grow low-protein wheat because we get more rain. These two balance each other and the final product has just the right amount of protein. Except this year we didn’t get that rain and as a result, when Bowers Stagg’s husband Tristan delivers the wheat to the grain elevator, they get docked for having too much protein.
One of the ways Bowers Stagg’s farm can off-set losing money on that low yield and high-protein wheat is to store it until the price of wheat goes up later in the year when demand is down. Pictured here is about 15 truck loads of wheat, or about 15,200 bushels that they’ll be saving and selling later in the year. Bowers Stagg grows soft winter wheat, which is primarily used in flatbread, crackers and wheat noodles (like Yakisoba) as it’s not the right consistency for bread. Most bread that we’re familiar with is made from hard red wheat.
I have to say, this was what I was looking forward to the most during my visit to Bowers Stagg’s farm: riding in a combine! I was super excited about it, but after taking a few turns in this thing, I can honestly say I have very little interest in doing this full-time. This might be one of the most boring jobs I can think of. This is 15-year-old AJ’s first summer working for Bowers Stagg, and he seems to like it, but I honestly cannot imagine driving a combine around for 14 hours a day. Yes, that’s right, 14 hours a day of sitting in that cab moving at the speed of molasses!! Important and necessary, yes, but not exactly thrilling. I understand why they hire teenagers to run the combine, but I was a little shocked to discover that a 15-year-old is allowed to work 14 hours a day. Bowers Stagg told me agricultural employment allows for exceptions enabling them to employ minors. They cannot work more than 14 hours a day or more than 72 hours per week. Because this is AJ’s first summer, he’s making minimum wage, but next summer if he comes back he’ll get a raise. He says he’s saving his money up to buy a truck he has his eye on. That’s certainly more dedication than I had at 15, I’m not sure I did anything for 14 hours a day except drive my parents crazy.
As the combine fills up with harvested wheat, one of AJ’s co-workers drives this wagon up next to the combine and AJ off-loads about 12,000 pounds of wheat and keeps on driving. AJ will finish early today because harvest is almost over. One of the benefits of a hot, dry spring and summer is that the wheat harvest is early this year. Bowers Stagg told me this is the first time that she can ever remember being done with harvest so early.
While the focus of my visit was wheat, as I mentioned, Bowers Stagg primarily grows grass seed. They were already finished harvesting grass seed when I visited – they finished that the second to last week in July even though they aren’t normally done until August 1st. As a result, Bowers Stagg said this is the first time in her life that she’ll be able to take a vacation in August. She said her dad is planning to go camping in August just so he can say he did it. Her family primarily grows forage type grass seed – seed used in pastures to feed livestock. One of the reasons they grow so much grass seed is because the soil where they live isn’t suited for much else. It’s mostly clay and doesn’t drain well enough to grow other crops. Bowers Stagg said they’re always looking for other crops to rotate in, but there aren’t many options.
One way farmers improve their soil quality, at least enough to grow crops like wheat, corn, and mint in climates that are overly wet in the winter and dry in the summer like where Bowers Stagg lives, is through something called tiling. Basically, they dig these huge trenches in the field and run perforated tubing underground. This helps water drain off the surface and out the tubes into ditches and streams. Seems brilliant, right? So why doesn’t Bowers Stagg do this on all her land so she can have more crop rotation options? “Well, as my mom says,” Bower-Stagg told me, “you’re pretty much buying your land again.” The cost of tiling is so high, it’s almost like you’ve paid twice for your land. Then, even if the soil is good enough to grow corn or mint, you’d need to install irrigation as well, which is also costly. One complication of lack of rotation crops is that pest control can be very difficult. If you keep the same crop on the field year after year, it gets difficult to get rid of the bugs and weeds who damage or compete with that crop. Bowers Stagg said they used to be able to burn their fields every few years to get rid of slugs and other pests, but that has since been banned. Now instead of burning the wheat stubble, they bale it up and send it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms. And, they end up using more pesticide to get rid of pests.
After the wheat is harvested, it’s delivered to the grain elevator on the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The wheat is dumped from trucks into a pit in the ground and then literally elevated up to those tunnels in the sky of this picture. From there, the wheat is poured into ships on the river where it travels mostly to Asia. Tristan told me that 74 percent of agriculture in Oregon is exported, including the majority of their wheat where it is made into Asian noodles.
Tristan has only been a farmer since he married Marie. He’s actually a paramedic and still does that part time. He says he likes farming better because while the hours aren’t great, he gets to work with really nice people, unlike his job as a paramedic where he often works with “unsavory” people (his words, not mine.) This is Tristan’s sixth load of wheat he’s delivered to the elevator this year. Thankfully when I got to tag along harvest was almost done and it was only a 20 minute process. Last time he delivered wheat he had to wait almost three hours in line behind other trucks. First Tristan uncovers the tarps from the top of the truck and then drives the truck onto a scale that weighs the truck full of wheat. It’s at this point that the wheat is also probed to determine protein and moisture content.
Next Tristan opens the back of the truck and the wheat comes pouring out into the pit below. Tristan takes care to remove his sunglasses and and anything else important that he’s wearing because if it falls off, it’s gone.
It takes less than five minutes for 60,000 pounds of wheat to pour out of two trailers. The wheat falls out so fast that there is a risk that the sides of the trailer might implode if it falls out too fast. It wouldn’t even be possible with the tarps on top.
I noticed a bunch of geese hanging around the elevator and after Tristan is finished he tells me why. They eat the leftover grains on the ground. Before getting back into the truck, Tristan empties his pockets out onto the ground that got filled up with wheat when he opened the back of the truck and the wheat fell out all over him. And that’s the end of my wheat story!
But wait, there’s more!
This is what it looks like to drive a blueberry harvesting machine! Don’t worry, it moves slowly.
Then they travel up above onto a conveyor belt where they are caught in containers.
Then they are dumped into bigger totes and offloaded by a fork lift onto a refrigerated semi truck and taken to be processed into frozen blueberries. Watch the video below to see the whole process.