I guess I should tell the history of how we got to this point to set the record.
In late summer 2005, I was introduced to Karl Kupers and Fred Fleming of “Shepherd’s Grain” in Spokane, WA. I was intrigued to learn about their group of family wheat farmers looking to market “identity-preserved” wheat grown in a certified sustainable manner. They were going to be exclusively certified by Food Alliance and were piloting a project to sell bulk flour to regional bakeries. We all immediately hit it off and I was extremely happy to find a supply of wheat that went beyond simply “organic” or some other specialty certification. These were multi-generational farmers who realized that if they didn’t act they would continue to lose the rich topsoil that they were blessed with on their lands. By growing conventionally and tilling the land, they inadvertently were doing two things: 1) they were turning up the top layers disturbing the beneficial organisms (mychoriza) and losing moisture and 2) they were losing soil due to erosion via wind and rain.
I was taken to farm fields where you could immediately identify which soils were done conventionally (loose, dusty, dry) and which were no-till (rich, moist, dark and smelly). The runoff from those fields was much cleared than the cloudy water runoff from a conventional field. And the moisture and smell difference was profound. I remember Karl saying to dig in the soil and really put a handful up to my nose. It was striking to see the difference and considering they were using less fossil fuels and yielding respectable levels, this seemed like a real no-brainer to me. (But little did I know how hard it really is to be farmer – part grower, planner, mechanic, financial analyst, planner, botanist, weatherman, etc. – you get the picture. And there is just so much work – it’s daunting to someone like me. Anyway, I digress….)
The odd thing for me was that I had been driving to the mill in Spokane a few times already – driving through acres of wheat – and never really thought about it. I was a little ashamed to realize that a 100 year-old brand of wheat flour was only buying commodity wheat with no idea who grew it and how. We bought wheat based on a specification – varietal, protein, moisture, ash. The Stone-Buhr line of flours had always been a “high-spec” with some strict quality controls, but let’s be honest: it can be very similar to other flours. I am sure a 100 years ago, the Stone-Buhr miller knew his wheat grower but in 2005, we had lost that connection.
By May of 2006 we got a deal in place to test market an all-purpose wheat flour from this new regional supply in a 5lb bag under the Stone-Buhr brand. If we were a big company, it could’ve gone quicker, but the reality is also that the grocery world is not a super quick moving industry! We started producing the flour by the beginning of 2007.
The best part of showing off the product at the Natural Products Expo in March 2007 was the response from retailers. It was clear that regional retailers in the Pacific Northwest wanted to support their farmer neighbors and they trusted Stone-Buhr to have a quality product (which we really did – that’s for another blog post, but I’ll put this All-Purpose Flour up against any other low-gluten wheat flour – test bakers, you are all on notice!). Even a local drug store chain called Bartell’s wanted to offer the flour – and they didn’t even sell flour! By the end of 2007, we had a good start with the Haagen’s and Rosaur’s regional grocery store chains and Safeway and QFC offering the new product in the Pacific Northwest. In 2008 we were successful in getting the new product in over 300 stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Utah and California.
As an old friend once said to me, “the grocery world is pick-and-shovel” – this has proven out – it takes a lot of work to get a good product on a lot of store shelves! Stone-Buhr is a tiny company in comparison to its competitors but I think our story and products are better for you, the regional economy, the planet and a whole heck of a lot of family farmers in the USA!