By Alexandra Schaefers
Greenwillow Grains brings dried beans, grains, and flours to the menu of local foods you can add to your diet in Corvallis. Owner Willow Coberly has converted 500 acres of her family’s grass seed farm to the production of food crops after a trip to Italy inspired her with the question, “Why don’t we grow food in the valley?” She was in Modena in northern Italy, with her mom noticing that all the food was regional and the climate similar to home. The news at the time featured scenes of empty grocery store shelves caused by fuel shortages in countries all around them, but in Modena everything was fine, all the food grown nearby. “We couldn’t eat grass seed,” Coberly thought about her own farm, “and it didn’t seem right.”
Coberly’s first food crop was bread wheat, very different from the white wheat often grown as a rotation crop for grass seed and exported to Asia. They planted 100 pounds of seed and harvested 75 pounds. “So my husband said, ‘I told you so’ and so did everyone else, but I knew a tiny bit about biology and [decided,] there’s genetics in that 75 pounds, let’s see what we can get out of that.” What came of those first 75 pounds was 3,000 pounds of grain which has been the base wheat at Greenwillow ever since. They now have whole wheat bread flour, cake four, and pastry flour, as well as rye, barley, and tritcale flours and rolled oats all processed at their own mill in Brownsville. Dave’s Killer Bread, American Dream Pizza, and Cirrello’s are a few of the businesses using their flours. You can buy the flours and grains at places like First Alternative and Market of Choice.
At home Coberly is just as committed to local food; 80% of her family’s diet is locally grown. Her kids still eat oranges and bananas and Coberly’s big cheat is milk that comes all the way from Dallas, Oregon, just barely outside the local foodshed. Coberly cites several reasons for her commitment to local food, all of which revolve around creating a healthier community. Keeping dollars in the local economy, limiting potential outbreak of diseases, and having food supplies in a crisis situation top the list.
Currently if we experienced a disaster in the Corvallis area, Greenwillow could potentially provide a much quicker food response than federal agencies and “no one would go hungry for the first couple weeks,” said Coberly. She is also proud of the fact that all of her products can be traced back to the exact field they were grown on, in contrast to big agribusinesses where spinach from many growers gets washed at the same plant and shipped all over the country, increasing the risk for things like E. coli.
Greenwillow Grains also pays their employees a living wage and provides them with medical insurance. Coberly observes that Americans are deeply invested in a habit of buying their food as cheaply as possible without being aware of the real costs behind our choices. We import grain from Asia exploiting their cheap labor and export our wheat to them because they want a higher quality product than we do. It doesn’t help that many stores that claim to support local businesses jack the prices up on local products. A normal markup is 40%, but knowing her own wholesale prices, Coberly often sees a markup of 120%. The math doesn’t make sense. Even with a markup less than 40%, she noted, stores would still make more dollar per dollar on local products that would then be closer in price to familiar brands. That would support local business more than creating the impression that local products cost three times as much.
But for Coberly the mission isn’t profits, which are negligible at the farm. Greenwillow couldn’t even keep up with the valley if everyone decided to eat local overnight. But the demand would convert a lot more of the farms to food production and create a healthier, more sustainable community. That’s what Coberly really wants to promote. “[The valley] has every component it needs to become regionally based,” she said. “We can grow everything we eat here.”