There is a quiet but swiftly moving current of “grain collaboration” happening throughout New England. Consumers are demanding local grains and even eagerly joining a unique heritage grain CSA, growers are working together to find the most suitable varieties and bakers are proudly displaying racks of bread made from wheat grown in nearby fields. From northern Maine to western Massachusetts, the movement is getting stronger as “our daily bread” becomes synonymous with “locally-grown-grain bread.”
Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA in western Massachusetts is one of the first and only grain CSAs in the country, proudly connecting farmers and customers directly. Six years ago, they began working with farmers to select varieties that grow well in their area. Winter wheat grows very well but spring wheat continues to be a challenge. Fortunately for the growers, consumers don’t have a preference for one over the other. Some of the grains planted include Red Lammas Wheat, Arapaho Wheat, Nothstine Dent Corn, Plymouth Flint Corn, Mandan Bride Corn, Rye, Heritage Spelt, Emmer and Barley.
“We distribute our grains whole because they keep forever that way, and because it offers the most nutrition to our members: they can cook and eat the grains whole, or grind and use them fresh,” explains Adrie Lester, Assistant Manager of the CSA. “There's no comparison between whole meal flour milled five minutes ago (with all of the ground berry and nothing sifted out), to flour that was milled, sifted to remove the germ (which is perishable) and much of the bran, possibly bleached or otherwise chemically treated, and then has sat in a warehouse for years before being consumed.”
For customers who don’t own a home mill, milling is available 7 days a week at Wheatberry Bakery or Waltham Fields Community Farm. According to Lester, a home-sized mill cost between $50 and $200 and their website provides a list of recommended home mills.
Only one of their growers is certified organic but the others are all in transition and using deep organic practices as stipulated by Pioneer Valley. They do hope that in coming years all of their growers will be certified, but also understand that it takes years, and is very expensive.
From the mill
Amber Lambke, President of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, Maine, is also the founder of Somerset Grist Mill. This wholesale manufacturing facility produces stone-milled grains and, as their website states, “is nationally recognized as one of the country’s emerging rural ‘food hubs’ by providing a space for local farmers, entrepreneurs, and community members to assemble and operate a variety of programs and businesses.”
Lambke creatively reused an old county jail building to house the mill and works tirelessly to revive local organic grain production, create more production opportunities and encourage a healthier, more vibrant community. “The stone mill grinds at cool temperatures, so we preserve the inherent nutrition in the grain by leaving natural bran, germ, minerals, and oils in the flour,” says Lambke. “White flour is stripped of these elements in the interest of prolonged shelf life.” They also mill fresh to order which, Lambke says, results in superior nutrition, flavor and performance.
They milled approximately 250 tons of grain in 2013 which is the equivalent of approximately 250 acres of locally-grown grain. Varieties include Common Rye, AC Brio wheat (hard red spring), Glenn (hard red spring), Heritage Red Fife (hard red spring), Harvard (hard red winter), Japanese Buckwheat and AC Alymer oats.
Oats and spelt are ideal for Maine according to Lambke since they both tolerate cool, moist weather, and rye is especially hardy when grown on rugged soils. But most of the production isn’t organic at the moment. Aroostook County is the largest agricultural land base in Maine and very little is certified organic. “In order to secure certified organic land in Aroostook County for grains, fallow untreated land must be opened up, or farmers will need competitive markets for other certified organic crops that can grow in rotation with grains, like potatoes, peas, beans, and vegetables,” says Lambke.
The most common production complaint Lambke hears from the organic farmers is weed management. But with careful tending to the weed bank, thoughtful rotations, and timely cultivation, weeds can be kept to manageable level. Given the short season in Maine, moisture is the second most common struggle since the planting and harvesting windows can be tight. And acquiring necessary on-farm equipment such as grain bins, dryers, harvesters, planters and cleaners is can be expensive.
Right now, very few Mainers are consuming Maine-grown grain. “Russell Libby said to me once that, based on census figures on per capita wheat consumption, Mainers are only consuming 1/10th of 1% Maine-grown grain,” says Lambke. Most grain grown in Aroostook County has historically been sold to Canadian feed and food markets. Despite the statistics, Lambke sees the future of Maine grain growing in a positive light. “There are markets for milling, malting, brewing, distilling, livestock, etc.,” says Lambke. “Additionally, there are several other small mills in Maine and I expect they all may develop their niche such as corn, mixes, spelt, etc.”
Bakers and brewers go local
In addition to managing the mill, Lambke works on the annual Kneading Conference with the Maine Grain Alliance. The idea for the conference began in 2007 with a group of Skowhegan residents who saw area wheat production as a key part of the growing local food movement. The conference is composed of workshops, vendors from across the country and the Maine Artisan Bread Fair. There are delicious breads, pastries and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven; books and tools for baking at home; professional bakers to answer questions; live music and demos; and superb Maine-made foods.
One two-day workshop covers all aspects of being the proprietor of a village artisan bakery. Another workshop, Evaluating flours from Maine-grown grain: What the farmer, miller and baker need to know, aims to facilitate successful integration of Maine’s grain crop into production baking. New in the fall of 2013, Maine Grain Alliance offered one- and two-day workshops at the Maine Grain & Bread Lab at the Somerset Grist Mill. These meetings are unique opportunities for bakers, chefs, millers and farmers to work together within the full context of bread from earth to hearth.
A particularly effective collaboration bringing key players together is the Northern New England Local Bread Wheat Project. Researchers from several Universities, farmers, millers, consumers and bakers in Maine and Vermont are working to help local farmers increase the production and quality of organic bread wheat through research, education, and networking. Bakers such as Borealis Breads in Maine, Vermatzah in Vermont and Hungry Ghost Bread in Massachusetts are making extra efforts to learn how to create high-quality bread products from flour produced by their neighbors, thereby educating consumers while offering wholesome, nutritious and delicious sustenance.
Several New England entrepreneurs have independently worked local grains into their businesses and are finding them not only an incredible selling point, but an opportunity to build rewarding relationships and craft high-quality products.
Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vermont has been committed to sourcing the best possible ingredients for their world-class breads. Owner Randy George was interested in producing bread with Vermont-grown wheat flour, specifically from hard red wheat, so he approached local growers directly to make it happen. The first two attempts at growing the crop failed, but the third time was a charm. Today, Red Hen's Cyrus Pringle bread (named for the 19th-century botanist and wheat breeder from Charlotte) uses wheat from Vermont farms. George’s determination to work with local wheat growers has successfully rekindled a viable wheat variety for the Northeast.
While enjoying bread made with local grain why not also indulge yourself in beer made from local malt? At Valley Malt, located in Hadley, MA they both malt and grow organic grains. They contract over 400 acres of grains with farmers in NY, MA, and ME and grow a little over 100 acres themselves. The grains used for their malting base and specialty malts include 2-Row Barley, Wheat. Rye, Spelt, 6-Row Barley, Oats and Buckwheat (listed in order of most to least in terms of quantity malted).
According to owner Andrea Stanley, the most common agricultural challenges include weed competition and fusarium head blight (FHB). Crop rotation and inter-seeding with clover helps manage weeds, and to combat FHB they use extended multi-year rotations.
“Oats, rye and buckwheat grow the best in New England, but the most demand is for 2-row barley,” says Stanley. “We are working with Cornell and UVM to find varieties of barley that are better adapted to New England in order to make this crop better suited to our region.”
Currently 26 breweries in neighboring states brew beer with Valley Malt as well as several distilleries and home brew shops. In 2011 they started their one-of-kind Brewers Supporting Agriculture (BSA) project. The goal was to directly link a brewer to a farmer and field. Interested brewers can purchase a BSA share for $500 which is an upfront commitment to grain farmers for growing malting barley. The money is often used to buy seed and/or equipment for growing the crop. For smaller scale home brewers who want to use local malts in their home-brew Valley Malt offers a Malt of the Month club (MotM). This offers a hefty supply of fresh and organic base and specialty malts and further supports local farms and their local malthouse.
“There is a huge consumer appetite for supporting local farms and local business, and demand just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Stanley. “Our growth at Valley Malt has been inhibited by the local supply of grain. The New England grain supply is immature; it needs time to grow and we are patiently waiting.”
In the meantime, Valley Malt supports the growth of the local grain economy by providing a ready market into which farmers can sell their grain. “We spend much of our time educating farmers on growing malting grains and also rebuilding the infrastructure for growing, harvesting and storing these grains,” says Stanley.
Dig Deeper! Get detailed growing information for heritage grains from variety selection to fertility to seeding rates to marketing in the Summer 2014 issue of New Farm. SUBSCRIBE TODAY!