MINOT, N.D. — An American wheat farmer has carved out a niche for himself by staying ahead of the consumer trend curve.
However, instead of going organic, which many farmers in his shoes have done, Karl Kupers built his brand around zero tillage.
In 1999, the farmer from Washington state joined fellow farmer Fred Fleming to form a company called Shepherd’s Grain. Their idea was to sell bakers, restaurant owners and food service companies on the concept that grain produced from no-till soil was healthier for consumers and better for the environment.
Although their efforts haven’t been as successful as the organic brand, the 33 growers who produce grain for their company now sell 750,000 bushels of wheat annually under the Shepherd’s Grain brand to customers primarily in Seattle, Portland and California.
Zero tillers on the Prairies might wonder if it’s possible, or necessary, to sell their grain under the brand of sustainability, but Kupers said it’s not only possible but also worthwhile to sell branded grain to consumers in cities such as Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.
“The ocean isn’t going to part and you walk (across) it,” he told farmers at the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Association’s annual workshop in Minot in early January. “(But) it will be a lot easier today than it was 10 years ago.”
Jill Clapperton, a soil rhizosphere expert from Montana, agreed that consumers are looking for a story that connects them to their food.
“They (consumers) want to feel good about the choices they’re making with food,” she said.
Since food marketing is likely 90 percent perception and 10 percent reality, Kupers said it’s not difficult to sell consumers the story of zero tillage.
“I found in marketing that you need an elevator speech, meaning you have 20 seconds (to make a pitch),” said Kupers, who looks the part of a salesperson, with an easy laugh, a booming voice and a willingness to mock his own failings.
“Well, my elevator speech is that nature doesn’t till…. It’s such an easy concept. It’s nature… They get it.”
Shepherd’s Grain has found a sweet spot in the marketplace between organic wheat and conventional wheat, Kupers added. Bakers, food service companies and consumers want to buy food that is healthy for them and the environment, but they may not want to pay a steep premium for organic.
“Organic has a certain restriction when it comes to volume … so we set ourselves at a different (price point),” he said.
“In addition, we talk about the agriculture of the middle. There is that level, from a consumer standpoint that needs larger volumes, and we’re able to fulfill that.”
With success comes criticism. Several producers who farm near Kupers near Ritzville have told him his wheat isn’t any better than theirs so where does he get off telling consumers that his wheat is superior?
“I didn’t say mine was better. All I did is tell my story…. I told the story of no till,” he said.
Kupers said his story and his charisma are helpful, but potential buyers want assurance that no till is a credible environmental practice. Third party certification is the easiest path to that credibility.
Shepherd’s Grain farms are audited by Food Alliance, which certifies food production for social and environmental sustainability.
He said the environmental stamp of approval carries a lot of weight with his urban customers.
“It turns a cold (sales) call into a warm call.”
Kupers urged fellow no tillers to get out of their comfort zone and dive into the marketplace for branded wheat.
Urban consumers in the middle of the continent are willing to pay more for sustainable flour, he said. As well, farmers don’t have to give up on the traditional export market just because they try to enter the branded wheat market.