Going (well) against the grain, emmer and all
New farmers choose remote fields to pioneer organic,
then direct-sale grain crops.

By Zachary D. Lyons

Photo by Zachary D. Lyons

Evoking an image worthy of the farm

Brooke and Sam Lucy thought deeply about every aspect of their grain business, right down to what they would call their farm. “We wanted a name that was indicative of place, but not exclusive to it,” Brooke Lucy explained, underscoring that the couple’s vision extended far beyond their fertile valley long before they had made their first direct sale.

“We thought about the name, ‘Methow Valley Grains,’ but we realized it lacked meaning for a national audience. Bluebirds are indicative of the health of the environment, and they are indicative of the place where our grain grows.”

The Washington State Department of Fish and Game has placed hundreds of bluebird houses around the Lucys’ farm. The birds protect their grain by eating insects and serve as a planting and harvesting reminder for the Lucys. The farm’s namesakes fly south each fall at harvest time, and they return again each spring at planting time.

“Bluebirds are striking—
blue against a backdrop of the Cascade Mountains,” Brooke Lucy said. “They make people think of clear mountain air and a natural environment.”

And as a business name, it doesn’t hurt that the words also roll easily off the tongue.

-- ZL

Perfectly nutty, wonderfully Northwest

The chef customers of Bluebird Grain Farm’s emmer (farro) are as crazy about serving it up as Sam Lucy is about growing it.

“The grain's inherent nuttiness is a perfect complement to many of the foods I prepare,” said Seth Caswell, executive chef at Seattle’s Stumbling Goat (www.stumblinggoat
), and president of the Seattle chapter of Chefs Collaborative. “When matching Bluebird Grain's farro with other regional ingredients, be it wild salmon or foraged morel mushrooms, I have no difficulty in creating new dishes.

“I was familiar with farro from my extensive work with Italian cuisine in New York City,” said Caswell. “I now identify farro with my Pacific Northwest cooking—earthy and flavorful while not being overbearing or contradictory to other ingredients.

Honestly, I might never have cooked with it again after New York, but Brooke [Lucy] gave me some to try, and it was so much better than any I had encountered before that I just had to cook with it.”

-- ZL

June 15, 2007: Direct farm marketing brings to mind farmers with boxes overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables at a neighborhood farmers’ market, or perhaps a local artisan cheesemaker delivering her latest creation to a top chef. Anymore, it might conjure up the image of a meat, seafood or poultry producer, of value-added goods like pickles and jams, dried things, smoked things and frozen things, and wine. Even milk. But grains?

Grain—whole and milled on the farm—is exactly what one Pacific Northwest grower couple is bringing directly to market these days. Bluebird Grain Farms is nestled up against the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Winthrop, Washington, and its revolutionary practices only begin with direct marketing.

From the varieties of grain this farm plants to its custom-built wooden granaries to its on-farm milling and packaging facilities, everything Bluebird does is outside the box. Owners Sam and Brooke Lucy are not only farmers and marketers; they are chemists and nutritionists, historians and gourmands. What they are doing is about the past and the future…and chefs from Seattle to New York are going crazy for their emmer.

Emmer (Triticum turgidum dicoccum), a grain so ancient it was the grain of choice of the Egyptian Pharaohs, is one of the earliest-known cultivated crops. There’s evidence of emmer from 10,000 years ago in Damascus, in modern-day Syria, and signs of wild emmer as much as 19,000 years old.

Known as farro in Italy, the grain is prized for its high nutritional value, its bold, nutty flavor, and its versatility. It is high in protein—16 percent to 18 percent—and is very low in gluten. It can be cracked for cereal and milled for flour for baking bread, making pasta or blending into pancake and waffle mix. It is most prized by today’s chefs, however, as a whole grain in soups, pilafs, risottos, salads, stuffings and more.

Celebrity chef commendation

“Bluebird’s farro is better than what I can get from Italy,” said John Sundstrom, owner and celebrated chef of Lark (www.larkseattle.com) in Seattle. Sundstrom, a 2007 James Beard Award-winning chef, met Brooke Lucy at the Chefs’ Collaborative’s 2006 Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection in February 2006, just one month after the Lucys stopped selling their certified organic heirloom grains on the commodities market and ventured out on their own to begin direct marketing under the name Bluebird Grain Farms. (For more on the Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection, visit Farmers and chefs connect through great food.)

Brooke runs Bluebird’s marketing program, while Sam is the master farmer. He has been farming as an employee or on his own in the Methow Valley of north-central Washington for more than 15 years, and he began growing certified-organic grain eight years ago.

“I never grew grain using conventional means, so I did not have to make a big growing transformation,” Sam Lucy said. He chose the location for his farm intentionally in an area not generally used for grain production. “The Methow Valley has not been abused. Fallow land can be certified immediately. I can start with a clean slate,” he said. “It may take two to three years to build up the soil, but it’s not contaminated with chemicals. I can’t imagine what we would do surrounded by thousands of acres of conventional grain farms. We couldn’t do it.

“I had the advantage of not coming from a grain-growing background, starting when many were getting out of the business and being in an area of such fertility.”

Sam does encounter old orchards fairly often (in his land reclamation business and quest for new acreage), as the region is famous for its apples and pears. Because many of these orchards have been fallow for as long as 30 years, they, too, can be certified organic. If, however, soil tests come back with even a trace of DDT and other chemicals used decades ago, he will pass the land over.

For the Lucys, their refusal to farm even marginally contaminated land is yet another difference between selling organic crops as commodities to an anonymous end-user and having a direct relationship with their customers. “Direct marketing means our customers can know exactly how we grow things,” Sam Lucy said.

Emmer rocks

Emmer is something special to the Lucys. They still grow hard red and pastry wheat, as well as rye and flax, but emmer is the star of their operation. “I love growing emmer, and not just because of its market value,” Sam Lucy said. “I love that it is essentially still a wild grain, it grows well and it is highly nutritious.”

Photo by Bluebird Grain Farms

Detractors argue that emmer does not yield as much as conventional grains. Sam Lucy retorts: “Yield is relative. Conventional wheat requiring lots of chemicals might produce 150 bushels per acre, but at what cost and price to the environment?” His organic emmer produces 30-35 bushels per acre, compared with 70-75 bushels per acre of his organic wheat.

Quality control and economics led to the Lucys' decision to direct market their grain. “When you have one grower, another harvester, a broker, a processor, etc., there is no way to control quality,” Sam Lucy said. He figures they are netting about 2.5 times more than if they sold their grain on the commodities market.

“We plow, plant, grow, harvest, store, clean, mill and sell all our grain ourselves,” he said. “We clean and mill to order, and we want our products to be used within 30-40 days of milling. Because we control our quality, we can offer high and consistent quality in our milled flours. Bakers need consistency.” That is another benefit that comes with the Bluebird brand.

Part of quality control is grading the emmer kernels on a gravity belt. “Number One emmer is higher in weight, and thus higher in protein,” Sam Lucy explained. “That goes whole-grain to chefs.” Number Two grade get blended with Number One, then milled for flour and cereal. Anything left over in the end goes for feed, for which Sam says they also have a good market. Shelf life varies with grains. In general, he says, the higher the protein, the shorter the shelf life.

Wood storage for quality

The Lucys use Old-World-style wooden granaries to store their grains. “We built our wooden granaries in 2005,” Brooke Lucy said. “We designed them to breathe because we will not use any fumigants to combat mold—a common problem in metal silos—and to allows any moisture in the grain to be absorbed by the wood. We’ve never had a problem with mold or moisture in these structures.”

Photo by Bluebird Grain Farms

Bluebird is building up to harvesting 100 acres of grain per year, but that takes 200 acres of land. They keep as many acres in rotations of a variety of fertility-building cover crops each year as they do in grain production, growing their cash crops in two-year cycles.

“Depending on the soil's needs after a grain crop, Sam will rotate buckwheat, flax, red clover or peas—not all of them at once,” Brooke Lucy explained. “Each field may have a different rotational crop or a combination depending on what the soil is lacking. The only rotation crop that is [also] a cash crop is brown flax.”

Bluebird Grain Farms harvested 30 acres of grain in 2006. In its first year of direct marketing that grain, its sales were $20,000. Sam is keeping his second job for now. But he envisions a day when farming will be his only job, and he can hire help to move the irrigation pipes. Brooke thinks that day will come after five years. In 2007, they have planted 80 acres of grain and expect sales to reach $50,000.

Photo by Bluebird Grain Farms

Marketing their grain is a hands-on affair for the Lucys. They attend large gatherings of chefs when and where they can, like the Farmer-Chef Connections in Seattle and Portland, Chefs Collaborative functions or a major Slow Food event in Chicago. They are confident of just how special a product they have, so they size up chefs to see if they will appreciate it. Part of understanding chefs is eating at their restaurants. It is important to the Lucys to know how a chef is going to use their product.

Pairing grains and game

While proper preparation is vital, so are pairings. Sam is an avid hunter, and all of the meat the family eats at home is the product of his hunting. He is as radiant talking about pairing emmer with rich meats like duck and venison as he is talking about his philosophy of farming. And when Lark’s John Sundstrom visited the farm, the Lucys fed him emmer and venison—“emmer-fed venison,” Sam noted with a chuckle. Sundstrom agreed with Sam’s culinary assessment. “Farro pairs well with rich braised meats like oxtail and short ribs,” Sundstrom said. “I will also pair it with squab, duck and quail.”

Direct marketing means their customers have greater awareness about the source of their food, according to Brooke Lucy. The result, she says, is that word of mouth is what is growing their business more than anything. And because they are always in touch with their customers—be they chefs, people buying off of their website, or farmers market shoppers—they get feedback. How many grain farmers who sell organic grain by the ton get to talk with the end customers?

“We receive direct appreciation from chefs,” Brooke Lucy said. “It’s an affirmation that keeps us going. Hearing that people appreciate what we’re doing makes us feel like we did the right thing by taking the plunge and making the investment to shift to direct marketing.

“The health crisis in the U.S. can be directly linked to the fact that people are disconnected from their food source,” Brooke Lucy continued. “It is a result of industrialization and a global economy.”

Reducing their footprint

Beyond the health of their soil, the quality of their products, the relationships they have with their customers, their sense of place and their commitment to growing nutritious food, the Lucys are also very conscious of the footprint they leave behind. To that end, they seek out biodegradeable packaging—be it paper or cellophane—made in the U.S. “It costs more, but it’s worth it,” Brooke said.

Because of the short shelf life of their milled products, they generally only sell them regionally, Brooke explained. Whole grains have a much longer shelf life—Sam figures two years on emmer, though some viable emmer kernels were found in ancient Egyptian tombs—so whole grains ship well. Because it is an excellent storage crop, it offers year-round marketability, either shipping it whole, or milling it to order. Both Caswell and Sundstrom keep Bluebird’s emmer/farro on their menus year-round, adapting recipes with the changing seasons.

“I always look forward to using
the product of familiar faces”

-- Seth Caswell,
Stumbling Goat Bistro

Sam Lucy and daughter Mariah waist-deep
in emmer, the star crop of the farm.

“Knowing that Bluebird is a small, family business—and how they do business—means a lot to me.”
-- John Sundstrom, Lark

Bluebird on-farm processed products—cracked cereals, as well as pancake and waffle mixes, for general retail sale—and whole grains and milled flours for restaurants and bakeries are packaged in bags holding from one pound to 50 pounds. The farmers start new restaurant accounts on a c.o.d. basis, but switch to a 30-day net invoice once a successful business relationship shapes up. With direct marketing, these growers find that personal relationships foster trust.

“I always look forward to using the product of familiar faces,” said Chef Caswell. “And when Brooke Lucy asked me if I'd try out her emmer farro at the Stumbling Goat, I had no idea what a surprise I'd be in for. All preparations receive raves from our diners.”

“Knowing that Bluebird is a small, family business—and how they do business—means a lot to me,” said Sundstrom. “Their flour is milled to order. It is fresher and more delicious. And the price is comparable to any other farro.”

“We’re selling to restaurants all over the country, from New York to South Carolina,” Brooke Lucy said. Indeed, some of the top establishments on the West Coast (in addition to Lark and Stumbling Goat in Seattle ) feature Bluebird emmer, including Tom Douglas Restaurants, Tilth, La Medusa, The Herbfarm, Sitka & Spruce, Paleys Place Bistro and Higgins in Portland, and Boulettes Larder in San Francisco.

“Harvard School of Health and Nutrition just used our products at a conference held at the Culinary Institute of America in California,” Brooke Lucy added. “They were educating family practitioners on the practical uses of whole grains in your diet. Our products were featured.

“We want people to be healthy. Food is life. We are contributing to people eating healthy.”