Shepherd’s Grain: Reconnecting Producers and Consumers through a New Food System

This is a guest post by NRDC Growing Green Award-winner Karl Kupers. Kupers won for his inventive pricing model that rewards sustainable wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest.

fields of gold

Shepherd’s Grain started with two traditional Pacific Northwest wheat growers. We raised commodity wheat and sold it by the bushel to the commodity market, where it was mixed with anonymous wheat from all over the U.S. and exported to countries along the Asian rim.

Back then, the market didn’t reward growers for quality or good stewardship. We grew wheat at the lowest cost possible. We handed it over to the market, and couldn’t track how the wheat was processed or where it ended up.

Gradually, research showed that diversified production and no-tillage growing were better for the health of the land. Bold farmers in the Pacific Northwest started taking up environmentally sound practices. These farmers were making a commitment of heart and mind, facing the economic risks that came with switching to no-till, direct seed production. They had to “burn the plow” and there was no going back.

It was obvious that these growers needed a system for transporting, processing, and marketing of food products where they would be rewarded for caring for the environment and producing high quality raw food products.

It was that vision that led to the development of Shepherd’s Grain.

My partner Fred Fleming and I knew that this new food system would require the producer and consumer to once more be reunited. Growers needed to talk to eaters, with both sides sharing values of nurturing health and the environment. This idea struck people as unique, even though our parents and grandparents had been doing exactly that – growing for and buying from people they knew – for decades. Growing up, we had a diversified farm, and what we couldn’t eat we sold to our neighbors. In today’s world, our neighbors are just further away.

So with a fresh model in mind, we started purchasing wheat from growers in the Northwest who were practicing no-till. Today we buy from more than 30 growers, process the wheat into flour, and sell this flour throughout the Northwest (but not beyond in order to reduce our carbon footprint). From the farm to the table, our production cycle is transparent. Our growers can learn where their wheat goes and our consumers know that they are feeding their families food that they can feel good about.

Shepherd’s Grain has taken a very idealist approach and broken away from traditional commodity marketing. We are a “price maker” instead of a “price taker,” setting the price of our flour based on the cost of production, not fluctuations in the commodity market. We are honest with our customers about what it costs to grow our wheat, all environmental costs included. And we have seen year after year that consumers like this clear pricing. Demand for our environmentally sound wheat continues to grow.

Being recognized by the Natural Resources Defense Council through winning the Business Leadership category of the 2010 Growing Green Awards is a great validation of this paradigm shift. Using the marketplace to reward good sustainable stewardship is very gratifying for me. It allows consumers to become food activists in such a positive way. With every food dollar consumers spend on Shepherd’s Grain products, they invigorate growers to perform at even higher levels of environmental stewardship and provide even higher quality food products.

This piece, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, originally appeared on the Onearth Greenlight.

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by sonofgroucho

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