Grain is a key ingredient in the American diet.
Many of us are familiar with the US Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid with bread, cereal, and pasta forming the large base at the bottom.
Local food reliance has a certain appeal, but producing all of the wheat, barley and rye needed to feed the region might be our biggest challenge.
As part of New Hampshire Public Radio’s series on food, “Eating In”, Amy Quinton has this look at the prospects for home grown grain.
666 (nat sound )
Dorn Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee is pouring tiny round grains into a metal container that sits over a sink.
(this is cleaned triticale that we’re putting in a tabletop grist mill)
Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye.
Cox grew this batch on his farm.
As the mill grinds away, soft flour streams out into a large stainless steel bowl.
Triticale flour can then be made into bread or other baked goods.
It’s not the only grain Cox grows.
Outside on his farm, he’s planted nine different varieties of wheat –in small plots- to see which will work best in New Hampshire’s climate.
Cox says selecting the right kind is extremely important.
Dorn2 “The difference is huge, one of the varieties produces four times as much as the lower producing varieties.”
The varieties he’s growing are high yielding modern versions of the heritage grains that worked well here 150 years ago.
Dorn “If you look at the overall food security system one of the major pieces of that is grain production, and we have a history of being able to produce it here and we just haven’t been able to take advantage of the current technology and genetic knowledge and on site selection that we now have available.”
Cox is part of a group of grain pioneers who want to take on the challenge of bringing back our capacity to supply the most basic of the food groups.
He and nine other farmers have formed the Great Bay Grain Cooperative.
Luke “this is soft white winter wheat”
That’s Luke Mahoney who runs Brookford Farm in Rollinsford.
He stands in front of ten acres of lush green fields of wheat.
Luke “Soft white winter wheat is mostly a pastry flour, it’s not really a bread baking flour, so the grain would be, at this stage of the game a byproduct that we could at its worst use to feed the chickens, and at its best use to feed humans.”
Mahoney says he started growing grains as a cheaper alternative to buying organic grains and bedding for his cows and chickens.
Right now he has about 40 acres of organic wheat, barley and spelt.
Luke “665 :46 a couple of old timers came by when I was plowing it up and said ‘I hadn’t seen this field plowed up in 40 years, nothing’s ever gonna grow here, they said that about that wheat field too.”
Mahoney proved them wrong.
But his experience also proved that growing grains isn’t easy.
When the grain cooperative started, many of the farmers didn’t have the smaller combines needed to harvest grains, nor did they know how to use them.
An early step was to get the right equipment and share it.
But that was just to get the grain harvested.
Critical infrastructure is needed to make many grains useful: storage, processing mills, and a distribution system.
Matt Williams, an organic grain farmer in Linneus, Maine, built his own mill so that he could continue to have a market for his organic wheat.
“Let me put it this way, if I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t do it again, (sighs) it’s not easy.”
Williams owns Aurora Mills.
He’s managed to make a go of it by meeting the needs of a growing demand for organic food.
Aurora Mills started processing organic wheat flour for Borealis Breads first.
Now, Williams also processes organic oats for brewing beer.
He says milling takes a lot of capital and investment.
“3:10 we had to get all the cleaning equipment, we’d already built some storages, but the whole thing about food grade grains is that they need to be tested for their quality and there’s a lag time in all that, and it requires good storage.”
It’s revealing that the closest place to get grains tested is in the heart of America’s bread basket…Kansas.
Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture, says the Midwest has the one thing New England lacks…land, and lots of it.
“2:20 we have limited amount of acreage, the kinds of large open fields that are practical for a crop like grain, grain is an extensive crop, we tend to have more intensive agriculture here in New England, the small fruits and vegetables kinds of things”
Merrill says when it comes to creating a regional food supply, it’s hard, if not impossible, to compete with commodity crops, where large quantities are produced at the lowest price.
“We’re not going to produce all the bread and cereal and pasta grains that we need, let alone enough to feed the livestock.”
But the grain growers in Maine are finding a market in the alternative food chain. An important first step is raising grains for animals, not people.
Rick Kersbergen is with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“I think the growth in the organic dairy industry really fostered the increase and interest in growing organic grains so in late 1990’s and early 2000’s we had a huge increase in the number of organic dairy farmers in the state of Maine, and in Vermont as well.”
Feeding those animals turned out to be critical. Kersbergen estimates that Maine now has about three thousand acres of organic grains.
Some of that does end up as organic baked goods, but for many aspiring grain farmers in New England, the more immediate demand is likely to be tied to a rising interest in local meat and dairy.
The USDA’s food pyramid might rest on a foundation of grains…. but when it comes to growing grains in this region, the nutritional needs that might matter most aren’t those of humans, but of cows.