American Morning

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November 25th, 2009
07:25 AM ET

Success in Sour Times: Network farming

By Stephen Samaniego

Fred Fleming's family has been farming in Lincoln County Washington for over a hundred years. President Grover Cleveland signed the deed to his great grandfather back in 1888. Since then the farm has been passed on from generation to generation. To say farming is in his blood would be an understatement.

Fleming jokes about how he used to be addicted to the traditional farming methods passed on to him by his father. "I'm a recovering conventional farmer. I'm ten years into my program. My name is Fred."

Fleming says this with a coy smile, but for years he worried about the sustainability of conventional farming. Traditionally, a wheat farmer sells his product on the commodities market where prices can be so volatile a farmer can be bankrupt before he knows what happened to him.

Fleming decided it was time for him to start selling wheat on his own terms. Fleming and his long-time friend and fellow farmer Karl Kupers decided to bypass the commodity market and take their product directly to the customer.

"We actually develop a relationship with our customer," says Fleming.

They were able to do this through forming Shepherd's Grain. It is a network of 33 farms that pool their resources, lock in a price with their customers ahead of time based on actual production costs and market their wheat as a team. Kupers says a fixed price allows farmers to better plan for their financial year allowing a farmer to know approximately how much profit they will be taking in each year.

"If you're going to be sustainable you at least have to cover your cost production. Agriculture doesn't play in that game," according to Kupers. "This is the uniqueness of Shepherd's Grain."

This business model has farmers waiting in line to join Shepherds Grain. Mike Kunz has been farming for 25 years and when the recession first hit, his farm was in financial trouble. He says after joining Shepherd's Grain two years ago, he was no longer vulnerable to the roller coaster commodity market and was able to create a sustainable business plan with his farm.

"It's a long-term plan. It's shown more popularity and I think its going to increase in the future."

Knowing what his profits will be each year has allowed Kunz to invest back into new farm equipment, making him more efficient and saving him even more money.

These days Fleming and Kupers spend as much time in their office targeting new customers as they do on their tractors. Marketing Shepherd's Grain has become a full-time job for both of them.

"How do I differentiate myself from the commodity market?" says Fleming. "Sort of like what Starbucks did with coffee. They put pizazz to it. What we're doing is we're putting pizazz to wheat."

That pizazz has attracted customers from across the pacific northwest, including Hearth Bread in Spokane. Monte Larsen, president of Hearth Bread, says the stable price and local connection were the biggest selling point when they were approached by Shepherd's Grain. Customers can trace every Hearth Bread product back to the farmer who grew it with a serial number provided by Shepherd's Grain. Hearth Bread puts that number on the packaging of their products and a customer can go online and meet the farmer who grew the wheat used to make the product.

"As we started marketing that around the area, sales have just exploded," says Larsen.

Fleming says this direct connection between farmer and consumer is the spirit of shepherd's grain.

"We've excited my customer base. And they truly are what have our future in our hands." says Fleming as he tears up. "When they buy products from us then they can truly impact the world."


Filed under: Economy • Success in Sour Times
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Tara Kunz

    My name is Tara Kunz. I'm the daughter of Mike Kunz, a farmer and a member of Shepherds Grain. I just wanted to let everyone know how hard my dad and all other farmers work to produce the products for Shepherd Grain. Without them we would not be able to enjoy our fresh local products. Thank you everyone!!

    January 11, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  2. Pat Mitchell

    Way to "STAND UP AMERICA"! and Thank you CNN for some real
    news, not just commentary, about what is really happening in/to our
    country and her people. I live in Santa Barbara and would like
    to support these products. Where are they available, hopefully, you
    have a Trader Joe or Whole Foods connection"? Thanks again, Pat

    December 19, 2009 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Scott

    THANK YOU Fred Fleming!! Thank you Food Alliance!!

    In a perfect world, food labels would be interactive documents with each ingredient on the list sourced with a click.

    Then, the label could interact with my phone, at the point of purchase, to tell me how far an item has traveled to get to me. Give me 100 mile diet!

    December 10, 2009 at 2:53 am |
  4. Dorothy MacEachern/Spokane, WA

    I'd like to add that not only is it a wonderful idea (I love knowing my farmer!) but it is also a fabulous product. I use Shepherd's Grain for baking bread, cookies and everything else.

    November 30, 2009 at 1:08 pm |
  5. Terry Lawhead

    I work for the state of Washington in economic development and it has been my most satisfying project with the state to witness the success of Shepherd's Grain. The partnership of farmers has certainly done it the old fashioned way, building relationships and providing an outstanding product season after season. As a state guy there has never been anything I could do for this group–they prefer pulling their own weight and just working harder than anybody else–but I did get to enjoy a "stick the labels on the bags of flour" work party with Fleming and his family and others, and it was as wonderful as local involvement can get. God bless Shepherd's Grain and its farmers and supporters.

    November 30, 2009 at 10:45 am |
  6. Matthew Behringer in ID

    Shepard's grain is such a great idea,I live maybe an hour or so and my local grocery store stocks the breads that use their grain it is just wonderful taste and all.I hope more people around the country catch on and do the same thing.

    November 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  7. Harry

    This grain is used in the products of Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane WA. It is also better in nutrition and seems to be less reactive fore those with gluten intolerance.

    November 27, 2009 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Food Alliance

    Some of the that "pizazz" in every bag of Shepherd's Grain flour is the third-party certification of Food Alliance.

    Food Alliance Certified is the most credible and comprehensive certification seal for sustainable food in North America. Food Alliance covers safe and fair working conditions, soil, water, and biodiversity conservation, human animal treatment, reduction of pesticides and hazardous materials, and continual improvement of practices.

    For more information about Food Alliance, the sustainability certification that adds "pizazz" to Shepherd's Grain, visit: http://www.foodalliance.org

    November 27, 2009 at 2:02 pm |
  9. ronvan

    The times are a changin!! While I do support our government and President, people cannot sit around and wait! These farmers had an idea and are making it work. What would happen to all those companies that are making the money while those that do the work get less, if the farmers, small business owners, etc., banned together and "forced" the rich to realize they cannot continue to "rape" everyone!

    November 26, 2009 at 9:03 am |
  10. Josh

    Come visit these unique farmers at http://www.findthefarmer.com and if you are looking for the flour in the Western US you can find it at your local grocery store under the Stone-Buhr brand – http://www.stone-buhr.com

    November 25, 2009 at 3:47 pm |
  11. Scott Exo

    Great story! Hats off to the reporters who took the time to understand what makes this model of growing and marketing food different.

    The other thing that distinguishes Shepherds Grain is the strong commitment of all the 30+ farms to socially and environmentally responsible production. All have independent, 3rd party Food Alliance certification.

    Read more at http://www.foodalliance.org, and http://www.shepherdsgrain.com.

    November 25, 2009 at 1:42 pm |
  12. Mike from Louisiana

    After, seeing Mr. Fleming's heart, on CNN revealed and reading the comments from Rich, Sharon, Mrs. Fleming and Pat P., I must say, to Mr. Jason Carroll, his contributors and anchors, this kind of reporting is what this Nation needs. There is wealth, beyond finances, within the spirit of this country and you, Mr. Jason Carroll have tapped into it. Awesome

    November 25, 2009 at 1:26 pm |
  13. Ben MA-KS

    Sorry, that was Katt Williams not Kat Stephens, still irrelavant

    November 25, 2009 at 10:27 am |
  14. Ben MA-KS

    Good story but for any CNN employees reviewing this post, the story was very hard to find on the website and I had to use Google! A search with "farm" and "network" or "networking" on CNN.com came up with all kinds of junk on Kat Stephens, Oprah, etc. Great to see on TV but hard to follow-up online!

    November 25, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  15. Claire

    God bless our farmers. If we didn't have them we would all be in dire need. It is time we all realize that we trully need them all to put food on all our tables.Please e-mail me the title of the book mentioned on the program. Thank you.

    November 25, 2009 at 9:06 am |
  16. Pat P.

    Thank you for having the courage to seperate from commodity market and be recgonized for your efforts in farming. The thought of being able to know, that what we eat, can be followed all the way back to farmer. WOW, what a good idea, finnaly American Farmers got it right. May God bless our farmers.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:56 am |
  17. Vicki Fleming

    Jason, excellent job of covering this story. We were pleased with how you explained our business.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:42 am |
  18. Sharon

    I am a small business owner and do somthing that not alot of people do anymore. I am a seamstress and repair zippers and seams also alter those beloved wedding ensembles so your wedding looks beautiful. Business is not bad but runs in spurts depending on the time of year it is. Its unfortunate that we import so many pieces of clothing from other countries that do inferior work. I see that from underneath the garments like most of you wouldn't . I am hoping for better times like most all of the country is.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:38 am |
  19. Rich in Ct

    What a great idea!
    Had a small farm in Wisconsin years back and it alway seemed that if you were first or last in the food chain you got the least and paid the most and all the folks in between were the ones who got rich.

    It'sazing what great ideas come out of hard times!!

    Thanks

    RM

    November 25, 2009 at 7:43 am |