CONDON - Moving forward an experiment wheat growers across the state are closely watching, growers in Gilliam County recently received $920,000 from the federal government in order to build the hub of a long-term project meant to increase the value of their grain to food processors.
The money will be used to build a Grain Quality Lab, a place where samples from each of the growers' crops can be analyzed and documented as proof of their quality, said Jordan Maley, an agent with Oregon State University's Gilliam County agriculture extension service.
"A farmer might look at their crop and ooh and aah and say it's high quality, but it might look completely different to someone milling it into flour," Maley said. "The system we're creating will alleviate those type of issues. We'll have the numbers millers and bakers understand so that they know what they're getting."
While it's not in place yet, the goal of the project, once the grains can be tested quickly for their quality, is to keep Gilliam County wheat separate from that of other growers. Even within the county, grains will be segregated according to their protein levels, moisture and weight, for instance, Maley said. As the wheat industry operates now, most wheat growers combine their grains, even those of different varieties, and sell them in bulk to the food processing industry. The idea in Gilliam County is to do something a bit different that offers buyers of the grain a guarantee of where the grain came from and how much it'll yield in product.
"We're trying to do something we think is the wave of the future," said Earl Pryor, a wheat grower just outside of Condon who works on about 4,500 acres. "The idea is based upon being able to provide the customer exactly what he wants."
Export markets, for instance, are growing more concerned about food safety issues, Maley said. Having the quality assurance system in place will allow Gilliam County growers to compete against Canadian and Australian growers - who already have such grain controls. Domestically, where the growers hope to gain the most competitive advantage, the new method of marketing their wheat could save their buyers money and make their product most attractive. That's because blended wheat varieties aren't as predictable as segregated grains could be.
"If 5,000 bushels of wheat are milled into flour, right now that first 5,000 bushels might yield 75 percent of flour, for example," Maley said. "But the next batch might yield only 70 percent of flour. If we in Gilliam County can produce a more consistent 5,000 bushels of wheat, we can help them."
Gilliam County growers, which number about 100, are taking some risk in adopting the new system, but the majority have been receptive to the idea, many even contributing $1,000 each toward the project, Maley said.
Pryor, too, said farmers are generally in favor of the idea, although he said they are being cautious about their expectations.
"I think the rank and file are in a position of 'show me,'" Pryor said. "As we bring the whole project together I think the excitement will build."
As for Umatilla County growers, "we're all kinda watching, but we're not trying to pursue the kind of segregation that they are," said Mary Corp, extension agent for Umatilla County's OSU service. "We're working on just overall raising the bar, the quality of our wheat. But it's a unique idea, and it'll just add to the overall resources available to wheat growers."
The boost in funding for Gilliam County's project was announced Tuesday by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development David Sampson as he and U.S. Congressman Greg Walden spent a week visiting the region.
"It's not every day that you get a grant of that magnitude," Pryor said. "It means people believe in the project."
The Economic Development Administration, from which the money came, was established under the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965. Its purpose is to provide financial assistance to meet economic development needs of distressed communities.
Sampson announced a total of $1.5 million to be invested in the state of Oregon, with Gilliam County by far receiving the largest chunk of change. (Among other grantees, Eastern Oregon University of La Grande received $110,000 to better analyze the economic needs of local communities, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation received $33,000 to continue a comprehensive economic development planning program.)
The money's potential to help growers in Gilliam County is long-term, but "all of the nearby counties are watching it with great interest," said Tammy Dennee, executive director of the Oregon Wheat Growers League. "As is the entire state. This may well offer new opportunities for developing a new market, and give us the flexibility of not being so dependent on the export market. We want to see it succeed."