Cascadia conference seeks to build local grain economy

Registration is now open for the Cascadia Grains Conference, which seeks to connect smaller grain farmers with bakers, brewers, millers and health and nutrition advocates.

The conference runs Jan. 17-18 in Olympia and various events throughout Thurston County.

The event exists to connect people and build a local grain economy in the Northwest, said Aba Kiser, conference coordinator and project manager for the Washington State University food systems program.

“There’s not a silver bullet of what that looks like, and we’re all in this together trying to figure it out,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone who wants to be a part of this conversation has a seat at the table.”

Getting better prices for farmers is “paramount,” said.

Craft brewing and distilling industries have enormous economic potential for farmers, particularly small-scale, diversified farmers who are focused on sustainability, she said.

The registration form asks farmers if they plan to increase their grain yield in the next three to five years.

The event focuses on resources for new and beginning farmers, including start-up capital and marketing classes, larger farmers trying small-scale rotations and other resources for their farms.

Mel Darbyshire, head baker at Grand Central Bakery in Seattle, will be keynote speaker. Darbyshire rose from the position of dishwasher at the bakery, Kiser said, and is involved in many local grain efforts.

Kiser expects Darbyshire to speak about the challenges bakers face buying local whole grains and supporting their employees.

The conference includes 18 workshops, a resource expo and several Friday field trips offering hands-on experience.

The program will focus on regional grains used for brewing and distilling, animal feed and baking and other food uses, according to a WSU press release. End-users will get an inside look at grain production, quality and developing connections to use and market products using local grain. Investors, brokers and local government officials will learn about investment and policy opportunities.

The event caps at 300 participants. Kiser hopes people leave feeling “revitalized.”

“We are hoping we can be the bridge builders and connectors,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of folks say they’ve done their best networking at the happy hour of the Cascadia Grains Conference.”