When people say that the modern world lacks simplicity, it sounds almost saddening. As if this complexity that we’ve spent thousands of years developing is not at all what we wanted. I disagree. I love humanity’s beautiful mess of ever expanding absurdity in all its conflicted glory. Every day individuals and groups, entreperneurs and companies find better ways to reap the goods of the earth without ravaging and crippling it with dysfunctional techniques. One company that continues to set new standards is Hummingbird Wholesale. They put it quite nicely when they say, “Like the Hummingbird, we seek to sip the nectar of the earth without harming the flower.”
Julie and Charlie Tilt took over Hummingbird Wholesale 8 years ago, and have managed to keep it steadily growing. It started with just the two of them, and in the past 8 years they’ve managed to hire on 25 new employees. They attribute their success to good service, quality product, and word of mouth. Most recently, they’ve purchased Down To Earth’s old Warehouse down by the railroad tracks, and they plan on renting out half of it, so as to make it a new source of community partnerships.
When they took over 8 years ago it was just Charlie in the warehouse and Julie in the Office. They bought the company from Eugene Scott, an extreme sustainability advocate. Eugene had already embedded sustainability measures into every aspect of the company, so we were really lucky to be able to take that over.” He was laid back and satisfied with what he had, and when Julie and her husband Charlie took over, they brought ingenuity and drive. Eugene Scott was using Pedalers Express, and the Tilts continued this service, but last year they internalized their deliveries, using their own co workers.
In my interview with Julie, she called them co-workers instead of employees. Even just that small distinction speaks volumes about their core philosophy and approach.
I asked Julie why they had chosen Eugene, and at first she couldn’t seem to fathom why that would even be a question. “There’s nowhere else like this!” I instantly felt silly for asking. Where else would a company like this be able to blossom so?
Hummingbird doesn’t seem caught up in the prevailing notion of cut-throat capitalism, taking its ques rather from ideals centered around sustainability and community. Hummingbird Wholesale maintains its interest in the locale by exporting its goods thereby bringing in outside money instead of re-circulating Eugene money, which is the shortcoming of a strictly locavarian approach.
Occupying the Willamette Valley has not always been easy. When Eugene Skinner first settled in and started a ferry it was known as Skinner’s Mudhole. When the Kalapuya Indians started getting the pox and whatnot, eventually losing ten to fifteen thousand to the plagues brought over by the settlers, it was known as The Valley of Sickness and Death. Now that we’ve found some measure of balance, some form of functional occupancy, we still manage to not only cause ourselves discomfort, but we manage to change the very consistency of the air. Spring in the Willamette Valley is notorious for hammering the allergy sensitive. This is because of the half a million acres of grass seed crops which provide the necessary ingredients that give the Willamette Valley, the Grass Seed Capital of the World, some of the highest pollen counts on the planet. Arranging contracts with local farmers to replace their grass seed crops with bean crops, wheat crops, and various other exportable staples, Hummingbird is helping to supplant the Willamette Valley’s unbalanced level of grass seed crops.
This monoculture cropping technique is beginning to show its dysfunction, our pollen levels being one indicator. Our methods and practices are by no means the best, but it’s an improvement on the past, and it’s getting better. The Kalapuya Indians had agricultural practices that were much more relaxed and loiteringly lackadaisical. They were hunter gatherers who would initiate controlled burns so as to make the country open pasture which is more conducive to elk, deer, and foragables like camas, tarweed, and hazelnut. John Hudson, the last known speaker of their language, gives us some insight into their world when he says “No one labored. (for wages) A man hunted, he hunted all the time. Women always used to dig… and gather… all we ate.” These people truly lived a much simpler life.
As we move away from this simplicity we find new and invigorating agricultural practices. No longer wandering in hopes of finding wild edibles, no longer setting fire to everything to keep it subdued, no longer being given a job based on gender, we truly have managed to take efficient advantage of what our earth has to offer us.
One of Hummingbirds more recent efforts is the Camas Country Mill, in Junction City. This is the area’s first commercial grist mill since the great depression and has been hailed for its efforts to relocalize the food system
For this project Hummingbird Wholesale partnered with Tom Hunton of the Hunton Family Farm, a third generation family farm that is at the forefront of crop diversity, growing beans, grains, and lentils as well as strains of wheat; a crop that used to flourish in the valley. Tom Hunton spent hundreds of thousands of his own money securing the project and its necessities such as the millstone which will continue to grind away for the next century and a half. He also had the help of a $97,000 economic development grant and a $50,000 loan from Hummingbird Wholesale.
The Camas Country Mill turns locally grown wheat and grains into flours which gives those involved more credit and a higher profit margin by supplying the finished product of flour instead of the just the raw unprocessed commodity which would than be sent to some distant mill where it would be milled and labeled as originating from the mill as opposed to the field. Last year farmers from seven oregon counties grew crops of bean and grain for Hummingbird Wholesale, and this new mill is not only a platform for Eugene’s agricultural business community, but for Oregon’s as well. These combined efforts of crop diversification and community expansion put Hummingbird Wholesale in the agricultural cat bird seat, developing standards and practices for our future farmers to learn from.
254 Lincoln St
Eugene, Oregon 97401
— Mike Hulter for EDN