Photograph by Ryan Bell for National Geographic
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Emmer, or farro, an ancient grain, is making a comeback in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to agreements between landowners and family famers.
Photograph by Ryan Bell for National Geographic
The Plate

Grain Farmers Join Forces With Suburbanites, Both Flourish

Crops don’t grow under concrete. And fescue won’t feed people.

Development is a problem facing American food growers. According to one report, farm and ranch land is disappearing at a rate of 50 acres per hour.

But in central Washington, one family has found a way to use rural development to its advantage. Sam and Brooke Lucy own Bluebird Grain Farms, a company that plants and harvests 280 acres. But they don’t own their own farmland. They lease it from second homeowners. Here’s how it works:

The Methow Valley is a vacation spot for Seattleites. In the winter, they come to cross-country ski. In the summer, to hike, mountain bike, and rock climb. But recreational properties have pushed the price of real estate beyond the reach of farmers like the Lucys. Elsewhere in Washington, cropland sells for $2,500 an acre. In the Methow Valley, an acre goes for as much as $10,000. At that price, farms either get bought by wealthy, absentee landowners, or by developers who subdivide and sell the land to people who build mountain getaways.

Twelve years ago, my wife’s parents joined the second group. They bought an idyllic home, located at the base of a mountain. From the deck, they watch red tailed hawks soar, deer graze, and they  can hear coyotes yip in the night.

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Sam Lucy puts a water irrigation pipe up against a fencepost on a homeowners’ land he farms in Washington state. Photograph by Ryan Bell

The property came with 15 acres of cropland and water rights. Given the value of water in the West, it seemed like a good investment. But my in-laws found that, in Washington, water rights are use-it-or-lose-it. They faced a Goldilocks dilemma: the land was too small to farm but too valuable to ignore.

My in-laws weren’t alone. Four neighbors on their dirt road also had cropland and water rights to deal with. So they joined forces–and land–and went in search of farmers.

The farmers they found, Sam and Brooke Lucy, moved to the Methow Valley for the same reasons as everyone else–recreation. Both had agricultural backgrounds: Brooke grew up on a cherry orchard on the Columbia River, and Sam on a seventh-generation farm in New Hampshire. Farming seemed like a natural way for them to make a living.

In 2002, they learned about emmer, an ancient grain dating back at least 10,000 years, and known as farro in Italy. In Europe and North Africa, the whole grain is used as an ingredient in pasta flour, bread, polenta, and beer. Once grown in the U.S., emmer disappeared as industrial farming focused on high-yield grains, like Red Winter Wheat, a crop grown on 30 million acres, an area the size of New York.

By the time the Lucys were looking to get into farming, health food stores had taken notice of emmer because it was a low-gluten substitute for conventional flour. There were no American producers, so stores imported it from Europe at considerable expense. The Lucys saw a business opportunity, if they could just find some emmer seed and land to grow it on.

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A worker seals emmer into a bag of Bluebird Grain so it’s ready to ship. Photograph by Ryan Bell

Gil Stallknecht, a wheat researcher at Montana State University, had a batch of emmer seed from Ethiopia. MSU was shutting down Stallknecht’s program, so he sold the Lucys his emmer. But if the Lucys hoped to succeed on the health food market, they needed to grow it certified organic. To do that, they needed farmland that had sat fallow long enough for whatever chemicals used in the past to dissipate.

Around that time, Sam got a call from a community of second homeowners that included my in-laws. He planted the first of what has now been ten consecutive crops on their lands. Bluebird is now a well-established brand across the Pacific Northwest, and ancient grains are catching on across the U.S. The National Restaurant Association just ranked it 13th on a list of the top 20 food trends for 2015.

The arrangement has worked out better than everyone expected. In the landowners, the Lucys found more than a reliable source of land–they found brand ambassadors from inside Bluebird’s target demographic. The landowners spread the word about the plight of emmer, look for it on restaurant menus and ask their neighborhood grocers to stock Bluebird products. Some hosted a Seattle chef who helped research and develop an emmer flour that can be used for pizza and pasta dough. And in the case of some, like my father-in-law, they chip in to do some of the grunt work, like moving water lines. Sam Lucy might be the only farmer in America who has a tax accountant for an irrigator.

In return, landowners get more than just their land and water “proved up” (that’s rancher-speak for meeting goals and expectations). The emmer fields put them in tune with their land. They walk the dirt road, discussing with their neighbors how each crop is doing. It fosters in them an age-old connection to the land, converting them from merely second homeowners to stewards of the Earth.

They may have come to the Methow for fun, but they stay for the farming.

Ryan Bell is a 2015 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. Starting in September, he’ll travel through Russia and Kazakhstan where American cowboys are helping build cattle ranches and report for The Plate along the way. You can follow his journey on Twitter and Instagram and his project page.