The 8th Annual Vermont Grain Growers Conference was held in Essex, Vermont on March 15th.
I traveled north with my friend Howard, who’s been planting grains for years – rye, oats and barley, and last year, wheat – all for home use. About half the 130 people at the conference were also some version of homesteaders, and small-scale producers. Organizers broke down the rest as 15% area and regional millers, bakers and buyers; 10% larger scale producers; and 20% Extension personnel, researchers, and other agricultural professionals. Most people came from Vermont, but I recognized a few people from elsewhere, too.
Baker Sharon Burns-Leader from Bread Alone Bakery came to take a pretzel making workshop. Miller Greg Mol from Farmer Ground Flour came from Ithaca, as did wheat breeder Julie Dawson. Greenmarket’s farm inspector June Russell – who helped put together the grains day at the January NOFA-NY conference, and many other bread initiatives, like NY Farm to Bakery, which paired NYC bakers with NY farmers and millers – came from NYC. Andrea Stanley, maltster from Valley Malt came up from the Pioneer Valley. All of these people present at other conferences, but came to Vermont to learn and connect.
The conference is just one thing the Northern Grain Growers Association does to support grain production, processing and marketing in Vermont. The farmer led organization has 75 members, and stitches together farmers, bakers, researchers and producers throughout the year with workshops and field days. Big players, like University of Vermont Extension and King Arthur Flour, add muscle to this movement, providing bake testing and other research and support.
The daylong conference started with a keynote by Quebecoise farmer Loic Dewavrin, who spoke about how a desire for self-sufficiency led his family to organics and seed saving. Eventually, this led to the formation of a cooperative, La Coop Agrobio du Quebec in 2008, with 18 member farms, all organic grain and oilseed producers.
The group is working to bring back populations from seedbanks, to help combat consolidation in the industry and create a living seedbank. Farmer members grow out varieties and work together to harvest them. Testing is an important aspect of this work, so the best varieties can be selected and shared.
Dewavrin said that in Quebec you have to fight for the right to use your own seeds, because of certification rules. “We are seen as robbers because we don’t buy royalty seeds,” he explained.
After seeds, the next steps to self-sufficiency his farm and other coop farms are pursuing include equipment design and fabrication. He showed slides of works in progress, and in use – for things like sunflower oil production – noting that machines designed by farmers are usually the ones that work better.
The day then broke into four different sessions. There were workshops on breeding corn, ancient grains, growing rice, grains as nutrient-dense animal feed, soy, gluten-free baking and flour.
I stuck with flour all day. Thom Leonard from Heartland Mills in Kansas was supposed to present this thread, but illness kept him from making the trip. The locals who took his place did a great job.
Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm and Randy George from Red Hen Baking Company showed the basics of running a home scale stone mill. The Meadows mill was bigger than any kitchen mill I’ve ever seen, more suited to use on a farm than in a home, and made some very nice flour with its not very big stones. Micronizer type mills got a bad rap here for producing dust instead of flour, though an audience member refuted this claim. He said he brings such a mill to the farmers market and mills for customers, who love it. Discussion turned to other small-scale matters, like threshing and winnowing grains from very small plots. A woman said she was working on plans for a box sized tool and she’d post them online when she had them finished.
In the next flour session, Randy George and Ben Gleason from Gleason’s Grains spoke about bolted flour, and how it creates a product more bakeries can use. Bolting is another word for sifting flour. Once Gleason installed a bolter, the Red Hen Baking Company was able to double the amount of flour they used.
The baker and farmer/miller discussed how bolted flour is more nutritious than white flour. Bolted flour preserves most of the endosperm and removes just a portion of the bran. Many home bakers and commercial bakeries use a combo of white and whole wheat flours to get the best result in bread, but when just bolted flour is used, the nutritional profile of the bread can be much higher.
Since we’ve been trained to believe that only whole grains are good, marketing bolted flour is difficult. Bakers and millers can’t say that it’s whole grain, because some portion of the grain has been removed. Brand name cereals and packaged breads can claim whole grain goodness regardless of the percentage of whole grain flour used. A loaf of bread made with bolted flour can contain more wheat, but not be able to say so, because of labeling rules. In many European countries, consumers buying either flour for home use, or bread at a bakery, better understand the facts of bolted flour.
The conversation slid into the next session about strategies for producing high quality flour, from variety selection to harvest and handling procedures. One great tool is this process is the University of Vermont’s cereal testing lab, where you can have your grain tested pre-harvest.
The last thing I saw circled back to the keynote speaker’s note that farmer-made tools work the best. Jack Lazor and Brent Beidler gave a slideshow tour of their visit Amish farms in Ohio, offering closeups on equipment that had been fabricated on farm for milling, sifting, and other value-added tricks, like puffing wheat.
Thanks to the University of Vermont Extension and the Northern Grain Growers Association for putting on another great grains day. Check out their website for resources on growing and using grains, like the cereal testing lab. There’s also a good collection of images – videos and pictures, of field days at Vermont farms, and from the tour to Denmark that UVM and University of Maine organized to see grain operations. Very worth watching.