Nathan Rea’s goal was always to farm. He’s now the fourth generation to lead the family’s HT Rea Farms, which sits on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley.
“My summer breaks were primarily working on the farm and I think that gave me a good perspective on what it takes and a really close connection to the land,” Rea said looking back.
They grow wheat, green peas, garbanzo beans and some corn on irrigated and dry land. Among that wheat has been the first two years of Bay State Milling Company’s HealthSense High Fiber Wheat.
Standing in a field of HealthSense Hard Red Winter Wheat in Milton-Freewater, Rea explained his path to this point in his career.
Rea earned an undergraduate degree at Washington State University in agriculture business and economics. From there, he went to the nation’s capital to work for his local congressman, Rep. Greg Walden (Oregon’s Second District). The gig started as an internship, but evolved into a fulltime job. At the end of his eight years in D.C., Rea was Walden’s Legislative Director.
In several positions in the congressman’s office, Rea focused on agriculture and environmental policy. He had a front row seat to some major legislation. Walden sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee, which oversaw the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act.
Rea always intended to return back to the Walla Walla Valley to farm the land as three generations did before him. The time away from farm informs his day-to-day experience.
“Everything I do here ties back to D.C.,” said Rea, rattling off a list of policies that impact his business like trade, agriculture, food and environment.
Rea and his wife Emily had their first child in D.C. Since they moved to Oregon five years ago, they had two more children. While Rea says there’s no pressure on the kids to take over the family business, he thinks there may be some budding farmers among his young brood.
The Reas have always had an eye for innovation. Over the years they’ve grown seed wheat and other identity preserved crops.
“Like all things, business-wise and in life, if you’re just doing the same thing and not exploring new opportunities, things become stale,” Rea said.
Two years ago, Mike Klicker from Northwest Grain Growers, a Walla Walla-based farmer co-op, approached Rea about growing some high amylose wheat for Bay State Milling Company. The new crop, which came to be known as HealthSense High Fiber Wheat, was new to the United States. The farm’s experience with segregated crops and their affinity for innovation made them a great partner for the early iterations of HealthSense in the Pacific Northwest.
“Our ability to identity preserve and have clean fields was a perfect fit for the Bay State wheat,” said Rea.
In 2018, they grew two fields of irrigated spring wheat and two fields of dry land spring wheat. They also have one field of hard red winter wheat. Rea said that growing a new crop like HealthSense is pretty similar to growing a proven variety. He said he may pay a bit more attention to it—rogueing for weeds and monitoring its progress—but overall it has performed as expected.
Growing HealthSense has also given Rea a new line of sight from his work in the field to the end user’s kitchen table.
“I think the Bay State opportunity has given us a chance to grow something that’s unique, that’s value added and, at the end of the day, is really a benefit to the consumer,” Rea said.
Based on his experience—both on the farm and with policy makers—Rea sees traceable, healthy options, like identity preserved crops as the way forward in agriculture.