Small farmer breaks ground for small grain
Small fields of buckwheat, quinoa gain in popularity
By STEVE BROWN
CHIMACUM, Wash. -- Growing up in the sprawling wheat fields of Eastern Washington, fourth-generation farmer Keith Kisler knew he wanted to carry on the family heritage. After marrying a big-city girl with farming dreams, he settled into a valley on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where he aims to reestablish small-grain production.
On the cooler, wetter side of the state, grain is grown as a secondary cash crop, as a rotation crop to break disease cycles and as a cover crop.
With his wife, Crystie, working off the farm as a teacher, Kisler has diversified the original 33-acre blueberry farm into apple cider, eggs and broiler chickens. One of his apple orchards, with 60 trees, includes about 55 varieties, all heirloom cider apples.
During a farm walk sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington, the Organic Seed Alliance and the Washington State University Small Farms Program, Kisler showed off the equipment he uses on the small grains he grows at Finnriver and at other organic farms in the area.
"This 1950s, John Deere draw-behind combine I've had for two years," he said. "I got it from the original owner, who kept it shedded."
The machine's 6-foot cutter bar is dwarfed by the combines he grew up around near Moses Lake, but it's just right for smaller acreages.
His seed drill has 6- to 7-inch spacing, he said. The denser planting helps the grain outcompete the weeds. A seed cleaner is shared by other seed crop growers in the area. Milling is done either by hand or foot, via a hand-made stationary bicycle-powered mill.
Kevin Murphy, assistant research professor at WSU, described the seed trials.
"We're starting with quinoa and buckwheat," he said. Quinoa comes from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, but as demand has grown, South American farmers are rotating it out less, which is devastating the crop.
"We've tried 44 varieties," Murphy said. "There are five to eight that did pretty well, but with issues. Growing small plots allows thrashing by hand."
Other grains Murphy mentioned include flax, wheat and spelt. Farmers are growing out buckwheat, too, "letting natural selection sort out what works best," he said. "We're making them stronger, more disease-resistant."
WSU used to ask wheat farmers to drop in 5 or 10 acres for wheat variety trials, he said, but now it's working with more small farmers.
Mark Ennis, who farmed with Kisler last year, now works for user, Pane d'Amore, a bakery in nearby Port Townsend. He also helps with a local pizza business.
"A lot of people are looking to use local grain," Ennis said.
"Bakers and farmers need to have conversations about milling, about protein," he said. "I'm not working with buckwheat yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Business will adapt to what can be grown here."