Rolling hills of golden wheat and the Palouse have become synonymous.
But Moscow farmer Garrett Clevenger would like to see some of that wheat land directed toward producing food crops rather than cycles of wheat, lentils and barley, much of which is exported out of the area.
“Why are we getting rid of our prime farmland,” he said, “when we could be growing a lot of food? Things do really well around here.”
By no means is Clevenger calling for an end to wheat production in the area. Instead, he wants to see some of the large-scale farmers lease small portions of their land to locals. Those small tracts would be similar to his Moscow farm, GT Farm Foods, a half-acre plot on the Steve Streets-owned DayStar Heritage Farm, located in city limits on the edge of town.
“We are doing half an acre, and it’s more work than I can keep up with a lot of the time – it’s a lot of work,” Clevenger said.
However, water – or lack thereof – would stand as a roadblock for many would-be farmers. Because wheat can be dry farmed, it thrives in this area. Other food crops would require more water.
“There is water here – if they want to sell it to Hawkins, why can’t they make it available to farmers and help subsidize our own local food supply?” Clevenger said. “I have no problem subsidizing farmers. We all need to eat.”
He said his dream is to see water and prime farmland used to develop a local food system.
“There is so much potential here, even though our growing season is kind of small,” Clevenger said.
He and his wife, Tabitha Brown, a doctoral student at Washington State University, started farming on the tract three years ago as part of a local “community-supported agriculture” program. Area residents buy shares or subscriptions from GT Farm Foods and receive a weekly allotment of seasonal produce – such as beets, carrots, onions and potatoes – throughout the farming season.
During the peak season, Clevenger said he usually puts in six to seven hours a day in the field. It’s hard work and not terribly profitable, but it comes with its perks, like a constant supply of fresh food. And it allows him to spend time with his young children, “which is priceless.”
“It’s nice to be able to have a job where I can make something and still hang out with the kids,” he said.
Clevenger is still learning on the job and tinkering with which crops to grow. He said his goal is to find the best value per square foot “because it is so much labor … between the planting, the weeding and the harvesting.”
Part of what drives Clevenger are the “hidden costs” of the world’s current food system. Those cheap prices Americans see in the grocery store don’t come without consequences.
“I am amazed how our food system works – food is cheap, but it is a lot of work to produce food,” he said. “In the long run we get hit with a lot of hidden costs, like environmental contamination, worker exploitation.”
The solution starts locally with farms like his.
“Everybody needs to eat, and there are ways … to do it sustainably,” Clevenger said. “It’s not like you could feed the world with farms like this, but you could supplement people’s diets.”