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 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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
“I always look
forward to using
the product of familiar faces”
-- Seth Caswell,
Stumbling Goat Bistro
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
“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.”