LACEY, Wash. — Stephen Bramwell’s grandfather, an Idaho sugar beet grower, invited him to farm, but that was far from Bramwell’s mind after graduating from high school in Eugene, Ore.
He went to the University of Washington and earned a degree in international studies. Then he took a low-paid internship at an organic farm.
”It transformed my life. There’s nothing as satisfying as making money from something you grow,” Bramwell said. “It’s hard work; it’s good work. It’s an area of total moral clarity. You’re producing something that’s going to sustain people.”
For three years he worked on organic farms on Vashon and Lopez islands in Washington. He then went back to college and earned a master’s degree in soil science at Washington State University.
He taught for a few years before becoming WSU Extension’s agriculture agent in Thurston County in 2016. In that position, he’s trying to help farmers in the South Puget Sound area and southwest Washington stay or become profitable.
“He’s hustling,” said Lewis County farmer Bill Reisinger. “I could tell by talking to him the first time he was damn sincere.”
Of 39 counties in Washington, Thurston and Lewis counties rank 13th and 14th, respectively, in the value of agricultural goods sold, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
Farming remains important, but faces development and regulatory pressures. The region is not dominated by large-scale agriculture. But small-scale, direct-to-the-consumer agriculture isn’t enough, according to Bramwell.
He’s conducted several surveys to gauge whether farmers can buck the trend to get big or get out.
‘Ag in the middle’
“Where’s the agriculture in the middle?” he asks.
One potential place is growing barley for the region’s brewers and distillers.
WSU contracted with Reisinger to grow barley for craft brewers. The beers were showcased at a brew festival in Tumwater in August.
Reisinger said the experiment went well. The barley grew, WSU paid a good price and there were a lot of people at the brew fest, he said. “I was just in awe.”
To check the potential market, Bramwell and undergraduate student Monte Roden last year surveyed 23 grain buyers in urban Thurston County. The respondents included brewers, distillers, bakers and a malter.
According to the survey, 65% said it was “very” or “somewhat” important to buy local grain. The most commonly given reasons were quality and to support the local economy.
The survey also found that most were willing to pay a premium for local grain, especially organic.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for (local grain) because the brewing community is always after something new,” Bramwell said. “Local buyers want quality, but they don’t need the same thing time after time.
”We don’t need to be a grain-producing region. We want grain to be among a suite of crops we grow,” Bramwell said.
Farmer surveyTo gauge grain-growing potential, Bramwell surveyed 21 farmers in Lewis and Grays Harbor counties. Farmers reported they were already growing more than 2,300 acres of grains such as barley, wheat and oats.
The acreage would approximately double if farmers could be guaranteed a market and good price, the survey found.
The survey also revealed that three-quarters of the farmers already didn’t have a place to store all their grain. If they grew more, they would need still more storage.
To solve that problem, farmers, the Port of Chehalis and Northwest Agriculture Business Center are trying to line up public funds to build storage silos at the port, which is next to Interstate 5. From there, the grain could be sent north or south to customers.
Bramwell said he hasn’t “been totally comfortable” with the idea of the public funding what ultimately will benefit businesses. But he said he believes the public investment will pay off if private enterprise thrives.
“If that happens, then those investments will be worthwhile,” he said.
Lewis County farmer Dave Fenn said Bramwell’s survey showed the potential benefits of grain silos at the port. “He’s been instrumental in trying to improve agricultural viability in Thurston County and southwest Washington,” Fenn said.
Reisinger said he could imagine a group of small farmers growing barley, especially if it could be processed locally.
”What we really need is a malting facility,” he said.
Bramwell and research assistant Sydney Debien looked at the potential value of processing fruits and vegetables locally.
A survey of more than 500 shoppers at a farmers’ market in Olympia found that 79% said it was “important” or “very important” for locally processed foods to have locally grown ingredients.
Demand was highest for frozen vegetables or fruit grown locally, followed by pickled or fermented vegetables, according to the survey.
In another research project, Bramwell is the principal investigator in evaluating whether farming can be continued or even enhanced while improving conditions for rare plants and animals.
“I don’t know if we can do it,” Bramwell said. “The role of extension is to ask questions and try to find out.”
Bramwell never did farm with his grandfather, the late Casimir Schell, a emigrant from Russia. Nevertheless, he links his grandfather to what has turned out to be his occupation. “Those roots kind of stuck.”