Ayers Creek Farm
Re: Market Farming and Grains
As you know, market farmers, for various reasons, find grain production enticing. In part, there are the aesthetics of grain waving in the wind, golden shocked sheaves, the aromas and exertion of threshing and winnowing, as well as the historic place grains have occupied in the small farm. And for farmers who see their operation as part of their customers’ diet, it doesn’t seem right that something as fundamental and easy to grow as grain is missing from the identity preserved equation. That is, the farm producing the grain is an important factor in the consumer’s purchase. On the other hand, the economics are challenging, especially when compared to market vegetables. The reality is that grains are cheap and plentiful, and that informs purchasing decisions.
Here are some thoughts based upon our six-year entanglement with grains. Although I do not suggest that anyone needs to take the exact path we have followed, it is probably helpful to understand how we approached the subject. Bear in mind, though, Carol and I joke that we stumble backwards into most of our projects. So our most lucid moments come after something has failed or succeeded, not as a result of some prescient analysis. We have also learned a great deal talking to others.
In the 21st century United States, virtually all grain is produced on farms several hundred acres or, more often, several thousand acres in size. The grain is often the least profitable part of a fixed three-year rotation. In the Willamette Valley, there are still farmers who produce wheat on a smaller scale in rotation with vegetable commodities or nursery crops. There is still an infrastructure supporting this approach. Although the price of wheat is higher today, it is still a commodity crop and the identity of the farm producing the grain is unimportant. Growing a few acres of grain under this commodity structure would require high capital costs or a lot of custom work, and is not economically attractive compared to fruits and vegetables.
It is possible to integrate a seed saving approach to the management of cover grain crops used as green manures. Whether this makes sense is still a function of the commodity price of grain, though some farmers may incorporate a “self sufficiency” premium or tolerance into the calculation. Likewise, growing grains for livestock and poultry links the grower to commodity prices. Organic farmers must also develop a rotation that accounts for self-sowing and weed pressure where the grain is ripened as seed.
Direct marketing of grain is the only way to shake off the influence of commodity pricing. Shepherd’s Grain has done this with wheat, chickpeas and red beans. It is what I consider a weak disentanglement from commodity prices. The prices Shepherd’s Grain can command are essentially wholesale at restaurants and bakeries, and retail at the farmers’ market. They are a commodity level producer that has learned to sell some of their production at a much higher profit. The breeding work of Kevin Murphy at Washington State University at Pullman is directed toward this level of direct marketing for certified organic growers.
A fuller disentanglement from commodity thinking and pricing exists most defiantly on Jennifer Greene’s Windborne Farm in Scott Valley, California. She grows many different types of grains and seed crops in a dense patchwork, and markets grain exclusively. You will find buckwheat amaranth, teff, millet and barley, but no vegetables, no fruits, no nuts. In Fields of Plenty (San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 2005), Michael Ableman provides a good portrait of Windborne Farm.
At Ayers Creek Farm, direct-marketed grains evolved from our interest in dry beans. Grains are integrated into a market program alongside fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. We currently grow maize, durum wheat, soft red wheat and naked barley. In the past, we also grew spelt and naked oats. We are beginning our fifth season marketing maize and durum wheat. This year, we will have marketable amounts of the naked barley. Here are our thoughts on these grains.
For the market grower, field corn is the “gateway” grain. It can be more profitable and less vexing than the sweet corn mutant. The grain quietly ripens in the field during the hectic harvest days of summer, and provides a good supplement for a winter harvest program. There is a good genetic pool to work with, including flints, dents and popcorns. This wide diversity is reflected in flavor, color and texture, as well as suitability for certain climates.
The grain is easily and economically hand harvested. Following the traditional practice, we shuck it and leave it on the ear until we grind it. We sell the fresh stone ground cornmeal (polenta) for five dollars per pound. This is competitive with other premium commercially available polentas and is a pretty fair price all around. We sell popcorn for four dollars per pound. The small ears make it more labor intensive in terms of harvesting and shelling. Then again, there is no labor involved with grinding and sieving.
There are dozens of varieties of field corn available. For the Willamette Valley, the ripening time should be 100 degree-days or less. We lose our day length rapidly in September and valley fog can keep things cool until mid-day, so a degree-day at that time of the year may need a week to accumulate. We have had good success with Roy’s Calais Flint (High Mowing ~90 days) and Nothstine Dent (Johnny’s Selected Seeds ~ 100 days). The flint is ready to harvest around the first week of October, and the Nothstine is close to ripe then but may not be fully dry until late October. The ears may need some additional drying indoors, and are usually ready to grind by mid November. We have been selecting for earlier ripening in the Nothstine dent.
Both varieties produce a very high quality, flavorful meal, though the flavors and textures are very different. Last year, the flint was placed in the Slow Food Arc of Taste ( HYPERLINK "http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/flint_corn.html" www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/flint_corn.html), and both are listed as RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) varieties. In the past, we grew White Seneca Flint (Ha-Go-Wa), but white corn meal is a tough sell so we have shifted to popcorn. Although people often asked for a blue corn, when we offered it this year there was little interest or positive feedback. The Roy’s Calais Flint remains the most popular variety, outselling Nothstine three to one.
As a general matter, the eight-row flint varieties such as Roy’s Calais are more nutritious than the dents. They are also associated with higher latitudes and altitudes because they ripen in less time than the dents.
We harvest and husk the corn by hand in the field. Even though the grain is fully ripened, the Willamette Valley is not the best place to dry corn in the field. We finish drying indoors on drying racks. Grain molds in a thrice, so keep the air moving and dehumidified. Moldy grain contains really horrible mycotoxins, so be careful.
As noted above, the grain is left on the ear until it is to be shelled and ground. After drying, the ears are put in medium size grain sacks. We bag about 30 pounds per sack, which will yield about 20 pounds ground and sieved. In some areas, the corn can be stored under ambient conditions. Our climate is too moist to store the ears in a barn. We store them indoors and keep close watch on the humidity.
We use a hand powered corn sheller to strip the grain from the ears, and clean the grain after shelling. A screen with a ½ inch mesh scalps off the larger pieces of trash, and a screen with a ¼ inch mesh sieves off the fine material. Errant pieces of silk are removed by winnowing the grain in front of a fan. It would be an easy matter to fabricate a simple seed cleaner for this purpose. We use a modified “Office Clipper” for cleaning the grain.
Whole grain corn has a very limited market. In fact, no one has ever asked us for whole corn. Corn can be ground with stone, a steel burr or heavy rollers. Stone ground grains are the superior product. It has to do with the way the grain broken and then smeared as it moves between the stones.
Meadows Mills ( HYPERLINK "http://www.meadowsmills.com" www.meadowsmills.com) sells a range of pink granite stone mills for grinding corn, as well as screen material and corn shellers. We own an 8-inch mill, a suitable size for a farm with a CSA, a market stall and some restaurant accounts. It runs on a household outlet and grinds about 50 pounds per hour. Currently, the mill costs $1,735 new. Meadows Mills sells stainless screen material. We made our own screen frames. After grinding, the meal must run through a #12 screen to pull off the coarsest fraction. A #18 screen will separate the grits from the fine meal. We don’t typically run the meal through the #18 screen unless there is a special request for fine meal. The customer must buy both the grits and fine meal; the sieving is done as a courtesy.
Popcorn is handled in much the same fashion. The grain takes longer to dry, and must be tested prior to sale. Popcorn needs an 1/8 inch screen for sieving. Glenn and Linda Drowns of the Sand Hill Preservation Center (www.sandhillpreservation.com) offer a good selection of open pollinated popcorn varieties for seed saving purposes. Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Change offer various varieties of popcorn as well. Johnny’s has an F-1 Hybrid variety called Robust 128YH that has larger ears than the open pollinated types. In our opinion, the flavor is not as good as the older varieties.
We are working on selecting for larger ear sizes in the Amish Butter type popcorn. Ear size is a critical profitability factor in grain corn. If you are planting with seed saving in mind, the rows must be oriented with the prevailing summer winds, and there cannot be other types of corns planted on the windward side of the field.
To develop a good frame of mind for growing corn, Harold Willis’ How to Grow Top Quality Corn, which was published by the author in 1984, is essential.
3. Small Grains
We have grown barley, oats, wheat, durum and spelt. These grains are best planted in the late autumn. Over-wintering grains have better root development and compete better with weeds, resulting in much higher yields. We try to plant in late October or early November. Small grains can be planted as late as Thanksgiving. Late plantings suffer less weed pressure. We do not own a drill, so the grain is broadcast and turned under with a cul-packer.
We have tried spring planted grains, and they have performed miserably. In an organic field, the nitrogen is tied up in the cold soil, so the grain gets a later start. The weeds tend to outgrow the crop, and yields are fairly miserable. Spring planted grains also need a shot or two of water, which adds to their expense.
Although small grains can be threshed by hand with a flail, it is a rustic exercise best reserved for museum displays, or as a way to get troublesome interns to quit. Small grains are best threshed with a mechanical thresher or a combine.
A the small end of the scale, Almaco ( HYPERLINK "http://www.almaco.com" www.almaco.com) sells a small bundle thresher for research plots, as well as stationary plot threshers and small combines. The prime virtue of these machines is their ease of cleaning. They are designed as research tools, and are relatively expensive. On occasion, Almaco has used equipment available as well.
We own a Cicoria ( HYPERLINK "http://www.cicoria.it" www.cicoria.it) hand-fed stationary thresher that has a higher capacity, but is more difficult to clean. We have both legume and grain concaves, and a selection of cleaning screens. Cleaning between varieties takes about an hour, and changing the concaves requires about 1.5 hours. It runs off a standard PTO. Recent declines in the dollar relative to the Euro have made this machine more expensive.
We also have an old AllCrop 60 pull-behind combine. The engine has seized, but it is in restorable condition. We should have it up and running for the 2009 harvest. The AllCrop series was designed for the small market farm. There are larger self-propelled combines that can be acquired reasonably, but they require a concomitant scaling up in production. They may represent a false economy when evaluated against a small bundle thresher that runs on pennies, requires no maintenance, and can be cleaned and stored in minutes.
Once the grain has been threshed, it will require cleaning. Once again, the Office Clipper does a good job of cleaning. Larger machines are available used, but for ease of cleaning and storage nothing beats the smaller machine. In addition, the small screens are much cheaper, allowing the diversified grower to clean a range of seeds from mustard to favas without a huge investment in cleaning screens. This winter, we adapted the Office Clipper by fastening it to a flat topped rolling Rubber Maid cart, and added an extension so the seeds fall into a larger container set on the lower shelf of the cart.
For information on traditional approaches to growing and harvesting grain, you need to consult older references. The Liberty Hyde Bailey series on rural living published M. A. Carleton’s The Small Grains (1920. NY:MacMillan). The Cereals in America by Thomas Hunt (1904. London: Orange Judd) is also a good reference.
Here are some observations on the grains we have grown.
Barley is a versatile, nutritious grain that has been overlooked in our diet. The grain has been cultivated longer than wheat, and has a strong culinary tradition in many cultures. The grain is more digestible and nutritious than wheat, and produces a thick, glutinous broth. The yields are substantially lower than bread wheat, and we have found many barley varieties are prone to lodging in the valley.
The ancestral form of barley has a hull that is glued to the grain. The hull must be abraded from the seed. Most barley available in the stores is a hulled type that has been pearled to remove the hull. The persistent hull is a beneficial trait when the grain is malted for alcohol production or is used for horse feed. The hull keeps the grains separated during the malting process or digestion. Most barley grown in the US is used for feed or malting.
The naked barleys have a mutation that prevents the gluing of the hull to the seed, so the seed threshes free of the hull. Naked barleys can be cooked as whole grains, and are delicious. There is a high degree of diversity in the naked barleys. The grain color ranges from a light ivory color through blue and purple, and all the way to jet black. There is a range of grain size, as well as gluten content. The 2008 Seed Savers Exchange lists about 58 varieties of naked barleys.
There are two-row and six-row naked barleys. The six-row barleys have a higher protein content. The yield is somewhat higher as well. We are still evaluating the differences in culinary quality.
Naked barley varieties are difficult to find in the US. We have used the Seed Savers Exchange to acquire several varieties. The Seed Savers Exchange provides good field and historical information on the various varieties. The US National Plant Germplasm System is a bigger and probably more bewildering trove of barley varieties. We have yet to explore that source.
Regardless of the source, small amounts of seed are provided, and it is the responsibility of the farmer to grow out the seed. This takes several years; nothing ready made about naked barleys. Our approach was to plant the full quantity of seed sent to us. The following two years, we planted half of the resulting harvest. The retained portion provided a hedge against crop failure, but also slowed down the process. After that, the retained portion dropped to about a quarter. We started this project in the summer of 2003, and we will have our first saleable amounts of two varieties (Dolma and Arabian Blue) this year. We decided to drop two Italian varieties (Milan and Leonessa) because of their extreme tendency to lodge. Waiting in the wings, we have Jet, Tibetan Purple and Glutinous. These will probably be ready to sell in 2010.
In the last couple of years, some naked barleys have appeared in the Whole Foods, and probably other stores. This is an alternative source of seed stock. We are probably irrationally wedded to our carefully grown out varieties. However, there is a story to tell with each, and that has some value if you are trying to escape the grain’s commodity status.
Durum (Triticum durum) is a hard amber wheat species used for bulgur wheat and Italian pastas. Bulgur wheat is whole grain durum that is cracked, steamed and then dried. The bulgur is then sifted in small, medium and large fragments. It is the ancient antecedent to parboiled rice.
Durum is also parched in its green state to produce frikeh, another traditional and ancient food from the eastern Mediterranean. Carol and I have written about frikeh production in detail for Growing for Market (Vol. 15, No. 7, July 2006).
c. Bread Wheat
Bread wheat (T. aestivum) is easy to grow and, second to corn, one of the most productive grain species. Within bread wheat, there are hard and soft, red and white, and winter and spring varieties. The grain is evaluated by protein content and other chemical characteristics.
We tried growing “Foote,” a soft white winter wheat for frikeh. The flavor was fishy. We have hesitated to start growing wheat for flour as it is very specialized and the variety selection would have entailed a lot of bread making. We prefer selling the whole grains at the moment.
Most varieties of bread wheat have a tough skin and are not particularly flavorful as whole grains for soups, stews and salads. A couple years ago, we purchased a package of frumento from a grocery store in Rome. It was sold as a breakfast cereal. The grain appears to be a soft red winter wheat of some sort. It is very tasty and tender for wheat. It is a true winter variety in that it forms a low growing tuft over the winter, and then shifts its growth pattern in the spring. The heads are large, productive and easy to thresh.
We missed planting the frumento last autumn, but would like to try some this autumn if we can find some seed. If all goes well, we will have a commercial harvest in July 2009. We believe it will be a very good addition to a market farm’s small grain program, and will share the seed with anyone who is interested.
There are several varieties of oats that produce seeds that thresh freely from the hull. They are referred to as naked or hull-less oats. “Nusso” is the most widely available.
Cleaning naked oats is a beastly job. Grass seed and mustard seeds are hard to pull out of the grain. We have held off growing much of it until we have the barley and wheat under control. That said, the naked oats make a fine porridge. When we get the cleaning under control, they should be popular with the grains for breakfast people. There are also a lot main courses from northern Europe that utilize oats.
Spelt and Emmer (Farro in Italian) are two tight-hulled grains that have enjoyed popularity recently. Spelt ( Triticum spelta) and Emmer (Triticum dicoccum) are separate species from bread wheat.
Spelt culture is centered in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, south of the rye growing regions. Among the many causes of St. Hildegard von Bingen was the advocacy of spelt (dinkel) as a superior grain for health. The ascendancy of bread wheat through central Europe was driven by its higher yields, ease of threshing, and the stronger glutens for bread making.
Emmer is Mediterranean in distribution. It was the grain grown by the Romans, and has undergone a recent revival in Italy.
When spelt and emmer heads are threshed, the ears are knocked off the stalk, and the grain itself remains within the hulls. We have managed to hull spelt in the thresher by setting the concaves as close as possible and running the ears through a couple of times. The recovery is about 60%. There are special hulling machines available from Germany and Italy, but the machines we have found are expensive. As an aside, Emmer is preferred in a semi-pearled state, which adds an additional cost to its production.
We grew spelt for about three years for the production of grünkern, which is a roasted green spelt, similar to frikeh. The poor grain recovery and the extreme difficulty in cleaning the grain led us to cease production. We would have had to double the price relative to frikeh to make it profitable, and probably would have killed sales with that price differential.
4. Other grain and seed crops
There are numerous other seed crops worth consideration. Among the small grains, rye grows well in the valley. However, it is prone to infection with Claviceps purpurea, also known as ergot. We have seen ergot on rye at our farm regularly. It is a nasty organism that causes hallucinations and gangrenous limbs. Unlike the grains mentioned earlier, rye not often used as a whole grain, so it has a more limited culinary potential. Ergot infection occurs at pollination, so normally self-pollinating grains such as wheat and barley are not typically infected. As I understand it, if there is a copper or boron deficiency in the soil, these grains do not self-pollinate and may become infected with ergot.
Millet, teff, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa have potential as seed crops for the market farmer. It is critical that the farmer know how to use these seed crops. They are not commonly employed in most kitchens, and they are not comfortable substitutes for other grains. In addition, it may be difficult to find the appropriate varieties. On the other hand, it is most gratifying to challenge our customers set notions about diet, and adding a bit of quinoa or millet to the mix would be fun.
We have found grains alluring and satisfying. They also represent a link to the dawn of agriculture. Early in the process of growing out the naked barley, we were rubbing between our hands the few dozen ears that represented the first harvest. We quipped that we were no more advanced than the hunter-gatherers who decorated the cave walls at Lascaux. As the plots grew in size, we enter our Breugel the Elder phase, and now we are firmly ensconced in Thomas Hart Benton.
With careful planning and handling, grains can be profitable and add diversity to a market table. Given the amount of unavoidable hand labor required, pricing is important. As the commodity price for wheat approaches $25.00 per bushel, it is easier to justify higher prices at the market table. It is important, though, to select grains that are very high quality and are poorly suited to large scale production.
Growing and harvesting the grains is but one step in the process. Understanding how they are used in the kitchen is equally important. There are several cookbooks on the subject. We particularly recommend Jenni Muir’s A Cook’s Guide to Grains (2002. London: Conran Octopus LTD.) and Lorna Sass’ Whole Grains: Every day, Every Way (2006. New York: Clarkson Potter) as good introductions to the subject. Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Greens and Grains (1998. NY: HarperCollins) was also an inspiration for us.
As you work with market farmers in the area, feel free to share with them our thoughts on grains. Your idea of creating a discussion forum on the subject would be valuable. If it works, a blog format might be a more useful as would allow commentary from people who might no want to subscribe to the list, or stumble across the blog while search.
As we look into the future, we might consider establishing a cooperative variety testing program specifically for market farmers. We all have a lot to learn.
Ayers Creek Farm
Gaston, OR 97119
The 2008 Seed Savers Exchange lists about 88 dents, 35 flints, 28 flour and 22 popping varieties. The numbers fluctuate annually because some seed savers alternate varieties from year to year as a means of genetic isolation.
Calais, Vermont, where this variety originated is pronounced locally as “Callous.” Draw out the s, don’t drop it.
Blue flint corn is adapted to very deep planting in the sandy soils of the southwest. The depth of planting may be as deep as seven inches, and the plants develop strong prop roots. In the Willamette Valley, such deep planting is a recipe for failure, and shallow planting leads to the plants lodging as the heavy ears mature. Another factor to consider before planting the blue flints.