{community voices} Scaling Up the Northeast Grains System

Editor’s Note: I am so happy to announce we are starting a new contributor-stream on FSC; Community Voices. These contributors will be monthly and are the voices in our local food community; whether it be a local chef, writer or swapper. First up, writer, teacher, wife, mother, urban homesteader Amy Halloran.

I first met Amy over the summer when Michael Kilpatrick & Justine Denison introduced us. Amy was writing a story on the Saratoga Farmers Market. Justine & Michael thought we needed to meet as I had just started the food swaps and FSC, the blog, was going strong! Once Amy & I met, and we’ve never looked back and have been mates in the food fight ever since.

I’ve been begging her to be a contributor for quiet some time, no dice. Finally, 2012 came and I finally got a yes! The time was right, she had a perfect topic to for her 12-part series: Scaling Up the Northeast Grain System. So Amy will discuss everything she learns through her investigation into where grain production went and how to get it back in our region.

Welcome Amy, we are so excited you’re here.-Christina
(In full disclosure, Amy wrote the first article on FSC Swappers in August for the Metroloand “Fair Trade”)

               Mike Davis of Cornell

I too went to NOFA-NY’s winter conference, and basked in a whole day focused on grains. “Scaling-up the Northeast Grains System: Linking Farmers, Millers and Bakers” took place in a long narrow slice of hotel conference room, all the better to narrow our focus on grains.

This is not the first day I’ve gladly given to the topic. I’m fascinated with how grains marched in and out of our state and its history. I love going to the Poestenkill in Troy and climbing along its steep banks, counting old millstones, thinking about the times when they were functional, not rubble. I love thinking about how the Erie Canal helped change grain production from a local affair to a regional endeavor, and how further developments in transportation and technology pushed production further west.

The redeveloping regional grain system is an echo of past agricultural habits, but also a new invention. Getting local about produce is one thing – the infrastructure required to get the food to market is fairly minimal, compared to renewing local grain growing and processing. When bread wheat left New York State about a hundred years ago, the tools for harvest and storage were just climbing into the machine age. Now, information and materials are missing. How do you dry and store grains? How do you keep fungal pressures from ruining a season’s efforts? What modern varieties grow well around here? What heirloom varieties grew well around here?

A lot of people have been working to answer these questions, and a lot of them got together to present their work in Saratoga. Plant breeders from Cornell discussed wheat projects, and another person talked about organic wheat trials at Cornell’s Willsboro Research Farm, which is on Lake Champlain.

Touring Joel Steigman’s operations via slideshow, you got a sense of how much physical infrastructure, in terms of buildings, tools and other equipment, is really necessary to growing and milling. Small Valley Milling is in Pennsylvania, and mills mostly what they grow on farm. Joel, his wife and his son sometimes run three tractors at once, trying to beat the weather and get the crops in.

Thor Oechsner, who farms outside of Ithaca, told his story. He used to grow organic grains for animal feed, but facing development pressures, saw the need to expand his operations and make his crops worth more. Oechsner Farms now grows some feed crops, grains for distilleries, and other grains for a mill he helped found, Farmer Ground Flour, and a CSA breadshare bakery, Wide Awake Bakery. He talked about varieties distillers want, types of wheat he’s growing or ready to grow for bakers, and the best polenta corn.

Farmer Ground’s miller Greg Mol and Oechsner took part in the next panel, which focused on farmer-miller partnerships. Baker/miller Don Lewis of Wild Hive Farm, and Judy Gianforte who grows for him also spoke, as did Sam Sherman from Champlain Valley Milling and Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain.

These are hard working stars in my wheat-lit sky, and I’ve heard many of them speak on previous occasions. But I still love listening to them, and hearing how these business relationships develop, and the practical details of their enterprises. Who stores the grain? How and when does it get delivered? Where does the price start and stop for products that don’t have a lot of market parallels? Who pays each other when, and who plays the banker?

Don Lewis, who started developing a local grain system long before it was fashionable, talked about how he built local flour into his products bit by bit until he was using 100% local wheat. “Rather than doing a Hudson Valley loaf,” he said, “ I felt it was more important to keep the consumer connected by incorporating Hudson Valley flour in all my products.”

He emphasized how trust, trust that someone will sell their grain to you, trust that someone will buy it, is essential. This may sound obvious and basic, but indifference and disloyalty can spoil a miller, or farmer’s plans. These basics are behind you and your local grain, which is as different from standard Midwestern wheats as a store bought tomato from its local peak summer counterpart.

                                                                                         Matt Funiciello of Rock Hill Bakehouse

After lunch, the NY Farm to Bakery project, which has been pairing bakers with millers and farmers, put some bakers on the stage. Sharon Leader from Bread Alone Bakery, Nina White from Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, and Matt Funiciello from Rock Hill Bakehouse sat with Don Lewis and discussed their experiences using local grains.

I probably would have loved to listen to them no matter what ingredients they talked about using, but hearing them talk about incorporating these flours into their bakeries, getting to picture a little bit what their days are like, who they work with, how those workers may or may not be able to adjust to the varying hydration demands of different flours, oh, I was a little bit in heaven.

“Slowing down the bakery is what’s going to allow these organic grains to be used,” said White.

The Steigmans sample pasta made with their emmer and spelt.

Next was best: a tasting of the grains at work. Sharon Leader’s whole-wheat loaf with Farmer Ground warthog was killer. Eli Rogosa’s flatbreads from emmer – an ancient grain she’s been researching and growing – were amazing. (Take a look at her website to learn about the history of wheat.) Matt Funiciello’s warthog loaves were pretty fantastic too. The absolute best though, was Don Lewis’ sponge cake made from Frederick wheat grown by Lakeview Organic Grain. I can still taste that cake, which was so good I didn’t feel obliged, for once, to make my own birthday cake.

The people who put this day together are responsible for helping urge along this local grain movement: Glenda Neff from the NY Farm to Bakery Project & NOFA-NY; June Russell from Greenmarket Farmers Market in NYC; and Elizabeth Dyck from Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network. They work behind the scenes, muscling funding infrastructure like grants and market rules that push for local sourcing, to maneuver us toward a vision that’s becoming very real, and tastier and tastier as it goes.

For more info on regionally grown grains available in NYC, go to the Wholesale Grains Website for Bakers & Chefs. Photos used with permission by June Russell via Flickr.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. dorothybloom says:

    I need to find out where I can get some of these flours

    1. Check out the last website I listed in the post if you’re near NYC — if you are upstate, Honest Weight Coop carries Farmer Ground Flour. You can buy Wild Hive flours at their bakery/cafe in Clinton Springs, which is worth a trip from anywhere.

  2. Sara says:

    As I love baking bread and am learning more about whole grains generally, I am really looking forward to the rest of this series. (I love my books from the Bread Alone bakery, someday I will make it over in person!) Any similar endeavors in MA that you are aware of?

    1. Wheatberry Cafe has a grain CSA in Amherst — mills right at the cafe that members can use! And in Northampton, Hungry Ghost uses local wheats. Once, they had their customers grow wheat in their backyards. Wish I could have seen that.

      I’m sure there are more great grain things in Massachusetts but those are the two I know of off the top of my head.

  3. Love this post and so glad to see others excited about the local grain movement! For those in the Saratoga Springs area you can buy Farmer Ground Flour at Four Seasons Natural Foods. I just bought a 25lb of Organic Stone Ground All-purpose for $1.30/lb. The 25lb bag is special order but you get a 20% discount for bulk ordering. (They carry 2 lb bags of the all-purpose, spelt, whole wheat bread and whole wheat pastry flours on the shelf as well.)

    I use the stone ground organic all-purpose for the recipes in the book Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a Day (http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com/) and I love it! I also make a whole wheat loaf from the book using the Farmer Gound whole wheat bread flour.

    Yay to local grain!

    1. Great to know! Happy you’re loving this grain thing too.

  4. Heather F. says:

    Welcome, Amy!

    1. Thanks Heather! Now I can admire you all up close, too.

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