Dave Fenn

Lewis County farmer Dave Fenn, president of the Southwest Washington Growers Cooperative, in a field of winter barley. The new co-op is making progress on its plans for a rail spur and grain silos halfway between Portland and Seattle.

CURTIS, Wash. — A new growers cooperative was formed in southwest Washington last winter and a few months later the coronavirus hit. Time will tell how much that impacted the new co-op's plans.

The co-op has eight members who put in $100 apiece. The idea is that the farmers will grow grain, such as barley, and transport it by rail to customers, such as malt makers.

The co-op envisions a $2 million complex of trackside grain silos halfway between Portland and Seattle.

Before the pandemic, the cooperative's president, Dave Fenn, was optimistic state lawmakers in 2021 would stick money for the project in the capital budget, a sprawling spending plan that funds everything from university laboratories to community swimming pools.

Then, the governor's stay-at-home order shut down a large part of the state's tax-paying sector for an extended time. Revenue that lawmakers anticipated having next year for laboratories, pools and maybe silos went poof. The budget hole hasn't been measured, but it will likely be billions of dollars deep.

"Without the virus, we probably would have got the funding next year, with the virus, I don't know. That's my concern," Fenn said.

Third generation

Fenn, 74, is part of the third generation of Fenns who have been farming in the Boistfort Valley since circa 1910. His grandfather, William Fenn, came from Wisconsin. Dave Fenn went to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, met his wife, Marilyn, and became a teacher.

For seven years, he taught and coached at Eatonville High School in Pierce County. He returned home to farm on Dec. 15, 1975.

Fenn raises beef cattle, but for decades the farm's primary income was from vegetables. "We did well raising those cannery crops," Fenn said.

In 2017, the local food processor stopped contracting with the area's farmers, including Fenn, to grow peas and corn. Farmers needed a new market, so the seed was planted for switching to grain. "I tend not to look back," Fenn said. "I tend to look forward."

Support grows

The forward-thinking farmers got support. Washington State University surveyed farms and documented interest in growing grain. It surveyed Puget Sound brewers and bakers and found an interest in buying that grain.

The Port of Chehalis donated land for the silos. Lewis County commissioners allocated $800,000 for a rail spur between the silos and the main north-south rail line. The money was from a pool given to "distressed counties" for job-creating projects.

The spur's construction was exempted from the governor's stay-at-home order. It's on budget and on schedule to be finished by mid-June, the port's director, Randy Mueller, said.

The co-op has cobbled together about $30,000 from public and private sources for a portable conveyor belt to load barley on rail cars this summer to take to Great Western Malting Co. in Vancouver. The Lewis County Farm Bureau contributed $5,000. The project also got some public money.

The silos are essential in the long run because farmers will need a place to store grain. But having the conveyor belt will allow the co-op to do something on a small scale this year, Fenn said. "We're still a long way from being able to build the storage," he said.

Lessons learned

The first year crop will be smaller than expected. Four co-op farmers planted winter barley in Grays Harbor, closer to the coast than Fenn's farm. The barley fields were flooded.

Elma farmer Jay Gordon said he lost 32 acres of the 40 acres he planted. The variety he planted was reputed to tolerate water. "It doesn't tolerate as much water as we get," he said. "We learned: plant barley in the spring."

Fenn's winter barley grew, as did barley planted by two nephews, Zach Zucati and Brennan John. They've also planted spring barely.

Gordon, a dairyman, said the silos also could take in Midwest grain needed by dairies. "I know the dairies are itching for this," he said.

Gordon is policy director of the Washington State Dairy Federation and one of the more experienced farm lobbyists in Olympia. He agreed 2021 will be a tough year to get state funding for projects. "I would not want to be a legislator this winter. They have their work cut out for them," he said.

The co-op may soon have more members. The Northwest Agriculture Business Center is working on organizing a network of farmers in southwest Washington for the distribution of row crops. The organization has about 18 farmers participating, the project's manager, Mike Peroni, said.

Fenn said the grain farmers who formed the Southwest Washington Growers Cooperative intentionally left out the word "grain."

"Our goal is to help all ag in Southwest Washington, not just grain growers," he said.

Recommended for you