The Methow Valley, nestled in the foothills of Washington State’s North Cascades National Park, is a unique part of the country where the economy thrives on both agriculture and tourism. It’s a true community, and local farmers, vendors and producers are touted and celebrated in restaurants around town. Bluebird Grain Farms—run by Brooke and Sam Lucy—is one of the Valley’s success stories. They just celebrated 10 years of organic heirloom grain production, with a particular focus on emmer farro, an ancient variety of hard wheat dating back to early civilization.
“We were probably the first farm in the country to grow [emmer farro] as a food crop,” says Brooke Lucy. “It was originally brought here as feed since it has such a high protein content. No one had really been growing it or selling it as a food grade crop in the United States. Italy was the only place that I could tell grew this and exported it to the States. But that was 10 years ago and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time to get our cleaning line set up in order to process this grain.”
Lower in gluten than modern wheat varieties and boasting a high nutritional value, emmer has grown in popularity as the ancient, or heirloom, grain trend catches on, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but across the country. In fact, the National Restaurant Association lists ancient grains as one of its Top 20 Food Trends for 2015. When milled into flour or used as a substitute for barley or rice, it helps create a hearty meal for locals and tourists that visit the region to hike and ski. While visiting the North Cascades earlier this year, we enjoyed Bluebird Grain Farms emmer in a fantastic mushroom & grain veggie burger at Old Schoolhouse Brewery and in filling pancakes, courtesy of our hosts at North Cascades Basecamp, before a full day of hiking.
Brooke notes that “it was a little shocking to us how well received [our product] was” from the very beginning. “The general enthusiasm and support not only in our community but really in Washington State has been super encouraging.” She credits part of the farm’s success to focusing on quality over quantity. “We only grow a few varieties of ancient wheats so we can really deliver a very clean product,” she says. “We also have the ability to mill (a relative rarity for grain producers) . . . so our focus is to be able to offer a variety of items, these ancient grain items that are really fresh and farm direct.”
While growing and producing emmer farro has been the main focus for years, Bluebird Grain Farms recently launched an einkorn wheat, “which is really the original ancient wheat, it’s the mother grain to emmer,” Brooke says. They trademarked their production of that grain – one of the first species of cultivated wheat – as Einka® Farro, an ancient wheat that Brooke says “is just as lovely as emmer but has its own unique characteristics.” The farm also produces a heritage dark northern rye, a hard red wheat and a hard white wheat.
While both she and her husband Sam had some farming in their backgrounds, they hadn’t intended to make that their livelihood. Sam grew up on a classic New England farm in New Hampshire, and Brooke grew up two hours south of the Methow Valley, where her dad had an apple orchard “but it wasn’t our primary income.” She says when she met Sam, he had a reclamation business in which he used different types of grasses and grains to rehab sallow farmland. “We live in an area where a lot of bigger farm pieces and ranches have been getting split up into these smaller parcels. He established his business to transition these bigger ranches into more productive farm crops or rehabilitate it into a native grasslands or plant state.”
Sam often used grains as cover crops to build soil; he became interested in ancient grains because he heard they were more resilient and hardy to adverse climates. “We live in a mountainous region where the climate can be very unstable and he was curious about these grains and how they would grow in our area. We ended up getting a small source of emmer farro,” Brooke says. “He experimented with that grain and found it had this amazing resilience to a lot of different things like disease, it seemed like a hardy plant, it had an incredible root structure. That launched us into this curiosity of ancient grains. One season we decided to actually grow the crop out and see what the seed was like. That was our original step into learning about ancient grains and going down the path of growing them as a food item.”
In farming, challenges such as climate and weather extremes are always looming. While the Pacific Northwest is experiencing a severe drought (like much of the West Coast), ancient grains luckily require a minimal amount of water to grow. Bluebird Grain Farms has irrigation and is able to focus on things like soil structure and plant health. Brooke says that while the water situation hasn’t been an issue for them, the wildfires ravaging the area have impacted the community. “That has been stressful,” she says. “It hasn’t directly affected the farming per se, but it has affected the economy.”
She notes that another challenge is the booming interest in heirloom grains. While they were one of the first producers of food-grade emmer farro, there are now more producers getting into the grain. “It’s a little nerve-wracking but it’s also wonderful,” Brooke admits. “It’s one of the challenging things about bringing a new product on the marketplace.” She notes that removing the tough outer hull from the farro—a necessary step to consume the grain—is often a barrier for larger companies. “They don’t want to deal with that,” she explains. “They want grains that are easy to thresh, where you don’t have to send them through the extra process to get that hull off. That’s one of the benefits for us.” But she notes that larger producers continue to enter the market and undercut prices, “a challenge for us smaller farms to compete with these bigger companies.”
Brooke expounds on additional farming risks and difficulties. “There have been a lot of challenges to the degree that I don’t know if we would have done this if we had known how many challenges there would’ve been,” she jokes. “One of our big challenges is finding farmland. A lot of farmland in our valley is locked up, handed down from generation to generation. The price point on this land is very high, and it makes it inaccessible to really purchase. It would be great to have a family ranch with hundreds of acres, that would be nice to just have that without having to pay for it.” She adds, “We’re in a very isolated area . . .[in which] a lot of people don’t grow grains, so it can be a lonely road at times.”
Bluebird sells the bulk of its grains within the Pacific Northwest but ships across the country as business requires. Brooke notes that while shipping can become cost prohibitive, there is a tremendous amount of interest in ancient grains and she and her husband look forward to figuring out their next step. “Maintaining the quality is the primary objective. We feel we have the capacity to probably double in size but we’re not sure what that means in how extended our reach will be. We like doing business in the Northwest because so many people know us and are so supportive of us. Of course our online store allows people to buy from anywhere in the country.”
Despite all the risks, the hard work has been fulfilling for Brooke and Sam. “I think when you do have a community of people that you feel that you have a tremendous amount of support from, I think that augments some of the challenges at times,” she says. “[The Methow Valley] is a unique place – if we were in a bigger area, who knows, it’s hard to tell. I think people have been extremely supportive of helping us to continue to persevere.”