From our Spring 2011 Issue of Stewards of the Land
By Mark Aiken
"This isn't Kansas anymore," Dorothy told her dog Toto when they first landed in Oz. Here in Vermont, Tom Kenyon, of the VLT-conserved Aurora Farms in Charlotte, knows exactly what she meant.
Tom is a rarity among Vermont farmers in that his business is dedicated entirely to the kinds of grains you find more typically in the Midwest: several varieties of wheat, oats, barley, rye, and hay. "In Kansas," said Tom, "they just turn the water off and send out the combines." What is most difficult about growing the same grains in Vermont? The weather. "Mother Nature runs the show," Tom said. "We just do what we can with it."
With the state's wet climate and other limitations, Vermont has never been known for its grain production—particularly the small grains like those Tom cultivates for the Nitty Gritty Grain Company. In recent years, however, there has been renewed interest in locally grown grain among consumers and farmers.
With this resurgence of interest has come an increase in production and many questions. Can Vermont farmers consistently produce quality grain? Is the market for locally produced grain sustainable? And what is needed for the answers to both of these questions to be "yes"?
Most recently, grains have been just a small player in Vermont's agricultural landscape. And why wouldn't they? The list of challenges is long.
In short, says Tom Kenyon, planting a grain crop is an investment. Most of what Tom grows are winter crops, which are planted in the fall and harvested late in the following summer. "You put all that money in the field in fall. It may look good before winter—green and beautiful and even and nice—and then in the spring it stays brown and dead." Or, he says, grains can look good in the spring and then one thundershower or hailstorm beats it flat. Or, everything goes well right up until harvesting time, when wet weather deteriorates the quality of the product. Vermont's clime creates ideal conditions for certain diseases and, of course, weeds. "You can send it off for testing and find that it's not up to human grade," Tom said.
Weather isn't the only obstacle. Suppose a farmer manages to grow and harvest a grain like wheat. What next? "We lack the infrastructure that you'll find in major wheat-growing places," said agronomist Heather Darby of the University of Vermont Extension Service.
Heather refers to milling and grinding facilities, storage facilities with proper aeration, cleaning facilities, and—for some grains like oats and spelt—dehulling facilities. In short, Vermont farmers lack everything they need to transform the grains that they harvest to a condition where people can consume them on anything but a very small scale. "One thing we need to recognize is that midwestern grains are commodities," said Heather, who also serves on VLT's Board of Trustees. "We will never be on that scale." Here, Heather said, local and regional demand will drive production.
Although Tom grows soft white wheat for white flour (on a limited basis) he doesn't mill it in Vermont. Everyone—individuals and bakeries—want white flour, but are they willing to pay for local white flour when there is cheaper flour available? Construction of an expensive mill would be risky. Do current levels of demand justify such a step? Is there a critical mass of people willing to make the choice to buy local, and therefore pricier, food?
"People need to know that growing grains here is hard," said Tom. "The investments necessary even to produce on a small scale are significant." This, he said, is why locally produced flour is more expensive than commodity flour.
Through the years
Vermonters are a sturdy and hardy breed, however, and not the type to shy away from challenges. Cereal grains are grasses that can thrive in Vermont's climate. The challenge is in growing, harvesting, and processing grain products that consistently reach a high standard.
The reasons for increasing and diminishing levels of significance of grains in Vermont agriculture throughout history have been social and economic as well as weather-related. For example, Vermont was a wheat center particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries until the completion of the Erie Canal, which caused production centers to move farther west—and which drove costs of importing grains down for Vermont farms.
If it has to do with the history of grains in Vermont, Jack Lazor would know. Having grown wheat since 1977 on his conserved Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont, he also grows oats, barley, buckwheat, sunflowers, dry beans, spelt, and emmer.
Jack has spent the last year working on a grains guidebook Amber Waves: Organic Grains for the Northeast, due for publication with Chelsea Green in May. Although grain production in Vermont dipped to insignificance on the agricultural spectrum in the latter half of the 20th century, Jack came into contact with farmers who continued to grow them—mostly as livestock feed.
"I had many mentors who helped me, most of whom are gone now," Jack said. His mentors were living proof that grain production had never completely disappeared, as they provided insight, advice, and even parts from old combines and other equipment. "This book is a sort of payback to them," Jack said.
Randolph dairy farmer Brent Beidler began growing rye for seed six years ago and then branched out to add wheat and millet. "It came out of a desire to diversify," he said. He and his wife Regina liked the idea of spreading their risk around, and the way grains integrate with a dairy operation—using straw for bedding, grain for feed, and rotating crops to keep soil fresh, fertile, and healthy on their VLT-conserved farm. It didn't take long for the Beidlers to tap into the local eating movement. When neighbors saw Brent planting crops, they asked if he could grow wheat. And so he gave it a shot.
In the last five to seven years, the dramatic increase in eating local food has created unprecedented demand for local grains. Erratic feed prices from the Midwest have put farmers on the lookout for local feed. And consumers and bakers are creating demand.
Experienced grain growers like Jack and Tom, who had been working with grains for three decades and two respectively, were poised to tap into the growing market. For example, Randy George, owner of Red Hen Baking Company, was interested in producing bread with Vermont-grown wheat flour—specifically from hard red wheat. Tom's first two crops failed. The third time was a charm, and today Red Hen's Cyrus Pringle bread (named for the 19th-century botanist and wheat breeder from Charlotte) uses locally grown wheat from Tom's farm and Ben Gleason's of Bridport.
Tom's first two tries are a testament to the risk that farmers take in growing these crops. Today, Brent and Regina grow spelt, spring wheat, oats, and millet for seed, which they sell to other farmers. Brent said his learning curve has been great. Because his primary focus is dairy, however, Brent knows that he can use any grains that don't make the grade for human consumption as feed for his cows. "They eat my mistakes," he said.
This, however, is where Heather Darby comes in. Heather supports education for farmers both new to grains and experienced. She promotes networking opportunities for farmers with other farmers and with consumers. She has procured grants for research and outreach. For example, one grant funded the purchase of testing equipment that farmers can use at UVM to check the quality of their grains. "She's part of the reason grains are going places in Vermont," said Jack Lazor.
A major project for Heather was her role in helping to start the Northern Grain Growers Association—an organization made of grain growers, bakers, consumers, and interested community members. The NGGA holds an annual conference at UVM. Attendance has grown each year, with over 150 people attending last year's meeting.
Grain growing never completely disappeared in this area, but now as a result of the resurgence of interest in local food, it's finding a new place on Vermont's agricultural map. It is no easy route, however. "Here, it's about building a relationship with the consumer," Heather said. Brent agrees. For him, locally grown grains are special because they are staple foods that haven't been widely available locally. But Vermont is not Kansas, and Brent stresses the need for teamwork. "If consumers are interested," he said, "their support and feedback will be essential."