For the last 10 years, the grain elevator in Kettle Falls, Wash., has sat abandoned, a silent sentinel over the town of 1,500 just north of Spokane.
The once-busy depot towers over the gas station and businesses, a metal cross perched on its top. The elevator closed after its use declined and the attached feed store closed.
However, in late 2019 the elevator augers were again filling the concrete silos with grain, as organic crops have created new opportunities for the area’s farmers.
Due to the work of the elevator’s new owner, Red Bridge Farm, the elevator is now a certified organic facility, offering eight compartments for storing and shipping grains.
To help make the silo a workable option for area farmers, Red Bridge Farm has networked with a short-line railroad that runs through the elevator, Progressive Rail, to connect growers with grain buyers throughout the country.
Several carloads of certified organic grain have already been shipped from the Kettle Falls elevator to destinations as far away as Iowa.
The new grain storage and rail shipping option means Eastern Washington grain growers interested in diving into the organic market now have the infrastructure they need.
“We work with the farmer to secure a purchase contract that is shipped through Progressive Rail to the buyer. We have eight different silos that can hold a half a million bushels of certified organic grain,” said Red Bridge Farm owner Brad Murphy. “Right now we are charging the buyer the shipping costs, which is an arrangement that has worked out well.”
The potential for profit and market growth in the organic grain sector is compelling, said Murphy, who noted that less than 1% of the crops grown in the U.S. are organic.
“The organic grain industry is worth over $1.3 billion,” Murphy related. “Organic livestock products were worth $1.2 billion in 2011, and that grew to $3.3 billion in 2016.”
Murphy said organic grains can often bring prices that are “double” what producers would get for conventional grains.
“In the U.S. there is a high market demand for organic grains, but little production. Most of the demand is currently being supplied by India, China and Australia,” Murphy said.
However, while the demand and the potential returns from organic may be high, the required switch in growing methods presents certain challenges.
For a crop to be certified organic through an entity recognized by the USDA, it takes three years of organic growing methods in order to meet the certification requirements. Sewage sludge or irradiation can't be used. Physical and mechanical methods of weed control must also be considered before any approved herbicides can be used.
An annual inspection and renewal fee must also be paid to the certifying agency. For USDA affiliated agencies the cost is up to $750 for inspection, along with an annual fee based on gross sales.
For farmers who have decided to transition to organic crops, the cost of herbicides and pesticides is often replaced by a time and fuel investment.
Farmer Ron McLean, who farms peas and grains near Addy, estimated that instead of chemical inputs to keep weeds down, he spent 300 hours on the tractor — using approximately 2,000-3,000 gallons of fuel for his nearly 600 acres — during the growing season.
Old technology, such as a rod weeder, is a favored tool for keeping weeds down instead of sprays. Using cover crops and fallow periods are other strategies to combat weeds, McLean said.
McLean did note that because organic farmers have a unique product, buyers often come to him.
“When you farm organic, the amount you get for your crop is double and the buyer comes and gets it, unlike the conventional market where it’s up to you to get it to market,” McLean noted.
Potential buyers for organic grains include specialty beer brewers, including LINC Cooperative in Spokane, and organic feed mills such as Highland Milling in Vancouver.
“Right now there is a whole bunch of interest from people in cities who have money and want to know where their food is coming from,” said Nils Johnson, the Washington State University farm coordinator in Stevens County. “There is even talk of a ‘terroir of grain’ in the brewing industry that highlights different profiles of grain, much like what is already done for products like wine and cheese. “