In 1999, Internet technology entrepreneurs competed to create the next big dot-com business. Communities throughout the country, including those in the Inland Northwest, courted startup Internet companies run by kids just out of college. Meanwhile in Reardan, Fred Fleming, a fourth-generation farmer, and Karl Kupers, a farmer from Harrington, realized they were in a rut.
They watched as wheat prices fell and rose. They complained about their government subsidies. Fleming, Kupers and other farmers wanted to keep farms in their families while feeling a renewed sense of energy for their profession. And so was born the idea for Shepherd’s Grain, a red spring wheat these farmers hoped to sell locally. About 90 percent of wheat grown by regional farmers is shipped overseas.
Few could have guessed in 1999 that a dot-com bust would leave most of the tech entrepreneurs in the dust. And these regional farmers, using no-till, environmentally friendly methods, would be part of a 21st-century trend that could become a key component of Inland Northwest economic vitality.
The trend is known as the slow food movement. It began in Italy when foodies there worried about fast-food franchises gobbling up the globe.
The slow food movement encourages people to eat food grown near their communities and understand the farming practices that produce the food they eat – and the wine they drink.
A core group of 12 regional farmers, who live in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, are involved in Shepherd’s Grain. Another dozen are watching with interest to see how the market develops. They are celebrating some recent successes. Their grain, milled by Centennial Mills and baked by Hearthbread Bakehouse in Spokane, is sold in dozens of stores and restaurants. It has been fashioned into the hamburger buns used at Mariners games, and Washington State University uses it in their food service items.
Sales have expanded into other Northwest cities. “We go to Portland and people come up and shake our hand and say, ‘Thank you for doing this,’ ” Fleming said.
Wineries in Washington and Idaho also are part of the trend. There are more than 460 wineries in Washington state, for instance, with a $3 billion economic impact, according to the Washington Wine Commission.
Economic booms in the Inland Northwest often arise from surprising sources. Kaiser Aluminum came to be during World War II because of the region’s cheap hydroelectric power. When the fitness craze began in the 1970s, the Spokane area embraced Bloomsday. Its success demonstrated that the region can support large-scale athletic events. Hoopfest followed, as well as the NCAA basketball tournament and U.S. figure skating championships.
In Italy, experimental “grocery stores” are taking the slow food movement one step further into experiences where consumers enjoy complete meals and drink wine while shopping. The slow food movement and regional wine trends may disappear as quickly as most of the dot-coms did by 2001. But they are here now to be noted and watched.
And they also provide one more reminder that sometimes the next great economic thing is not what everyone else in the country is doing. Sometimes, it’s right here under our noses.