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The Grain Shed owner Don Scheuerman: ‘I grow beer and bread’

Don Scheuerman, a Palouse farmer who also is a co-owner of the Grain Shed, stands inside the Grain Shed, which is celebrating its first anniversary. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

If you were to start listening to Don Scheuerman’s life history, if you were to hear where he’s been and what he’s done, you might be tempted to have some ideas about what he was up to. But before you can figure out a polite way to ask he’ll anticipate the question and say, “No, I wasn’t working for a certain covert government agency.”

He has done a lot of stuff. Born into generations of Palouse wheat farmers who came from the Volga region of Germany, after doing time as a proud Cougar Scheuerman set off for wilder parts – to Alaska to work for office of the governor, to Montana where he owned a gold mine, and then off to Russia and Vietnam. He moved commodities – “unsexy rebar stuff” – from Russian to Vietnam.

He ate caviar with senior naval officers, drank vodka with security service personnel, and visited the dachas of oligarchs. Easy with people, a good listener and fluid talker, he watched for opportunities. While working in Vietnam, which had embargoed the import of American goods except for those listed as “humanitarian,” he noticed apples were allowed into the country and the Vietnamese people had developed a taste for them during the war.

Scheuerman is a man who sees opportunities and pounces. Using family contacts in Wenatchee, he found a way to bring Red Delicious apples to Vietnam. Then things, as they often do, came crashing down. “I’ve made a lot of money and I’ve lost a lot of money,” he says. “I like the adventure. And now, I want to build something.”

That something turned into putting together a whole bunch of pieces that resulted in opening the Grain Shed a year ago. It quickly became one of the Perry Street district’s go-to spots. You can sample a flight of beer and chow down on fresh-out-of-a-brick-oven baked goods that might be the best in Spokane.

After adventures careering around the world, Scheuerman returned to the Palouse in 2003. Back to the land, back to his roots. He wanted his daughter to have an opportunity to play Whitman County B basketball and bought a farm located between Endicott and St. John. In 2014, he and his brother Richard, who teaches education at Seattle Pacific University, partnered with a family friend and formed Palouse Heritage. The goal: to create an operating model for small farmers to grow wheat sustainably and economically viably.

Scheuerman spent seven years looking for the right team to pull off a complicated operation. He tracked down Shaun Duffy, who had been baking bread for Luna and has a killer resume as a chef. He found Joel Williamson, who co-founded the LINC food co-op, and Joel’s brother-in-law, Teddy Benson. Both men wanted to brew beer.

But of course, bread and beer start as seeds. Scheuerman’s grains, called landrace or heritage, remain in their archaic form without having suffered the effects of hybridization. They have longer roots than their modern commercial cousins and tap into trace nutrients deeper in the soil. Scheuerman speaks passionately about the dangers of monocrops and believes the chemicals found in Round-Up – glyphosate – that are turning up in wines and Cheerios and baby food are, if you read the European scientific papers, causing cancer. His wheat is non-GMO, though not organic, and tends to be higher in protein and fat and lower in gluten than the commercially farmed stuff. The ancient grains also, he says, have richer and more distinctive flavors.

Scheuerman provides heirloom seeds free to farmers and he pays a premium for their wheat – it’s more expensive to grow than conventional strains, though requires less fertilizer. He sells the wheat to the Grain Shed, where it is milled, baked and malted. The breads are all sourdough, fermented and hearty. The pastries, flaky croissants and pain au chocolate, are patisserie quality. The cookies are Mom-good. In truth, some people’s moms have never made chocolate chip cookies that good. Customers savor healthy loaves of Khorasan and purple Eygptian barley, and guzzle pints of Russian soft red wheat.

However, it’s not just about taste. Scheuerman is a man is on a mission. His ambition is to educate people about the food supply chain. His stated goal: to get you to stop poisoning your kids, to stop wrecking the planet, and to eat and drink things that taste good and are good for you.

Because massive amounts of chemicals have already been dumped on this soil, Scheuerman says it’s hard to farm organically on Eastern Washington’s dry land. “We’re ‘ag in the middle,’ he says. We’re working toward transition and renewal.” Toward detoxification.

“Chemical farming is all synthetic inputs, all carbon-based,” he says. Right now the soil in eastern Washington has been ruined by fifty years of dumping glyphosates and other poisons into the land. “Biological farming,” he says, “is how my grandfather farmed.” Prior to WWII, no one used chemicals. He cites scientific studies done at WSU to say we are moving toward sterility in the soil.

While Scheuerman looks and dresses like a farmer, at a working-fit 70 he sounds like a change-the-world activist. “We live in a time and culture with radical centralization,” he says. “Right now three companies control 60% of all the seeds in the world.” He calls his seed “open source.” His interest is in empowering local people – farmers and consumers – in a decentralizing model.

And he wants you to join the movement. It’s a drive away from the carbon-based industrial era, about renewal of the soil and revitalization of the farming community. It’s about reconnecting the rural with the urban. “I want to have a platform that demonstrates that four or five farmers can adopt a neighborhood and you can have a distinct self-reliant food chain.” It’s more than just the hipster dictate to “know your farmer.” He wants people to know their farmer’s practices, to know whether they’re industrial chemical or sustainable biological.

“It’s about vertical integration,” says Scheuerman. “I grow beer and bread.”

When asked how the Grain Shed has done in its first year, Scheuerman laughs and says, “We’ve made payroll every week.” He explains that experienced businesspeople know that’s never to be taken for granted. The fact is, his model gives back at every step, to the farmers, to the bakers and brewers, and to the workers serving up the food and drink. It’s a co-op. The Grain Shed is profitable, he says, but “the real success is having great community support.” Production quantities are fixed because everything is baked in one brick oven; they sell out most days. Whatever remains is given to the food bank and to the women’s shelter. “Quality ingredients, quality workers, and quality product.” Scheuerman says it like a mantra.

Occasionally the older man joins the millennials who staff the place and works the cash register, chatting with customers. At this point, it’s important to him to be around like-minded people. “The word I like to use is ‘kindred,’ ” he says. “I look for any shade of green” – those who share his environmental vision, and he seeks to “meet people where they’re at.” He’s not a proselytizer who’s out to change the minds of farmers deeply entrenched with big agra. But he’s happy to talk at length to share his perspective.

Soon Grain Shed beers will be available in local stores and they’re looking to open another location in Spokane, but Scheuerman is not interested in scale. What he seeks is to create a platform, to spread the model: “I want five other farmers to find a baker and put this all together and do the same thing. Another awesome Grain Shed in some cool neighborhood somewhere else. Where you’re not poisoning children and the environment.”

Over a cup of coffee, he says, “These are complicated problems without simplistic solutions.” But he keeps his eyes on a simple goal, “A healthy and sustainable dirt-to-consumer product chain. I want people to adopt a neighborhood.”

Ultimately, for a man who traveled the world and ended up back on the farm, it’s all about building and maintaining local community.