Regenerative agriculture” seems to be the newest buzzword to describe sustainable and conservation agricultural food production. But what does it all entail?
As Jeremy Bunch, CEO of Shepherd’s Grain, explains, “Regenerative agriculture is an intentional approach to increasing carbon in soil, and that approach involves farmers matching their agricultural practices to the ecosystem in which they farm. Understanding and mimicking ecosystem energy cycles, water cycles, and soil nutrient cycles is at the heart of it. The particulars change from region to region, but the principles apply everywhere.”
Two Decades of Regenerative Farming
Shepherd’s Grain, a flour brand created in 2003 in Spokane, Washington, specifically markets flour from farmers who have implemented these regenerative practices. This farming model is the foundation of Shepherd’s Grain and has been a standard for their farmers throughout the company’s 20 years.
Regenerative agriculture starts with not using tillage. According to Bunch, no-till farming practices are foundational to increasing soil carbon and allowing diverse soil biology to flourish, among many other benefits. Farmers producing wheat for Shepherd’s Grain flour must practice no-till, and those practices have been verified by a third-party certification, Food Alliance, along with verifying additional sustainable farming operations.
“A lot of other companies are putting together all sorts of programs that farmers can sign up for in order to explore and advance regenerative agriculture,” Bunch said. “But Shepherd’s Grain comes to the table and says, ‘We are the regenerative farmers.’ Shepherd’s Grain was created by farmers twenty years ago to support the sustainable and regenerative practices that they were already implementing, and you can support these farmers and their practices best by using their flour.”
There is a strong social element to the Shepherd’s Grain supply chain. Bakeries and consumers appreciate knowing who produced their food and how it was grown, but farmers also value knowing where their food ends up. In the Pacific Northwest, where most of the wheat is exported overseas, farmers have historically had little or no connection to the marketplace. Shepherd’s Grain changed that and allowed wheat production and flour usage to become personal. Bags of flour can be tracked to farms that grew the wheat in those bags, but it’s just a nice story if the quality isn’t there to back it up.
In 2020, Grain Craft became the exclusive miller of Shepherd’s Grain flour. Grain Craft has led the milling industry in efforts to promote the commercialization of high-quality wheat varieties, which aligns well with Shepard Grain’s vision and values.
“The traceability of Shepherd’s Grain flour also allows for tight quality control,” Bunch said. “We have an accepted variety list for the wheat we accept, and they are only varieties that we have confidence in – the best baking qualities. All the wheat is identity-preserved from the farm through Grain Craft’s mills. We know how each farm’s wheat bakes before it gets to the mill. So, we are blending not just for a consistent protein, but for all flour quality characteristics. And we are proud to be working with Grain Craft on this. Their level of expertise and excellence in quality control and customer service is top-notch in every way.”
“Shepherd’s Grain’s ability to manage quality through traceable supply chains, combined with our varietal and flour milling expertise, means we are well-positioned to bring high quality, sustainable flours to market.” said Alan Koenig, chief supply chain officer for Grain Craft.
Shepherd’s Grain has also pursued research that looks at the connection between cropping systems and wheat and flour qualities, research that benefits both farmers and end-users.
“We put dollars into agronomic research to give our farmers more tools to farm regeneratively,” Bunch said. “We have extensive data on soil carbon increases over several years, showing how much soil carbon has accumulated due to no-till practices among our farmers region-wide. We have participated in research that shows no-till-produced wheat has higher nutrient density than wheat grown in conventionally tilled cropping systems. We are working with researchers in Germany to understand how no-till produced wheat affects gliadin and glutenin ratios in gluten, something that could shed light on gluten sensitivity in consumers. Leadership in these areas is a high priority for us. This is not fluffy, green washing stuff. This is solid, white paper level research that we have done or that we are pursuing.”
Grain Craft’s national milling infrastructure is allowing Shepherd’s Grain to reach beyond the Pacific Northwest marketplace. “Shepherd’s Grain has extensive relationships with regenerative farmers around the country. As the industry increases its interest in supporting regenerative agriculture, our partnership with Shepherd’s Grain stands ready to meet that demand,” Koenig said.
Shepherd’s Grain has historically purchased wheat from its farmers based on a cost-of-production model, and that has brought an important economic sustainability element to the table for both growers and flour customers.
“Our farmers know they are getting paid a value per bushel that allows them to stay in business,” Bunch said. “On the other hand, flour users know that they have price stability. When the commodity markets spiked due to international events earlier this year, Shepherd’s Grain’s flour prices did not move. Price stability in these volatile times allows our customers to have confidence in making their business plans sustainable.”
Grain Craft is producing Shepherd’s Grain Low Gluten Flour, High Gluten Flour, Whole Wheat Flour, Pastry Flour, and its “00” Neapolitan-style pizza flour that is gaining high recognition in the marketplace for its quality and performance.
“For 20 years Shepherd’s Grain has successfully shown that creating a direct and traceable supply chain from regenerative farmers to end-users and consumers is the most meaningful way to support regenerative farming practices,” said Koenig. “Grain Craft is proud to be a partner of this important focus on replenishing the earth and is excited for the opportunities ahead for soil health research, product transparency and improved wheat quality for the industry as a whole.”
About Shepherd’s Grain
Shepherd’s Grain was founded in 2003 when a group of farmers dedicated themselves to utilizing only the most sustainable agricultural practices to produce wheat varieties selected for their superior flavor and baking qualities. Shepherd’s Grain is a farmer owned company and consists of 45 farmers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, South Dakota and Alberta. Their commitment to quality and sustainability continues today as recognized leaders in both regenerative agriculture and superior flours.
About Grain Craft
Grain Craft, the third largest flour miller in the United States, is a family-owned milling company offering premium bulk and bagged flours for the baking, food service, pizza and tortilla industries. With over 100 years of history, the company continues the tradition of working with American farmers to grow and harvest the best varieties of wheat to provide customers industry-leading flour. Headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Grain Craft serves customers coast to coast through 12 milling locations. People are the core of the company, driving excellent, safe products and bettering communities.