“It all comes down to grain. Yes, because it’s delicious – a whole world of flavor that’s been ignored for the past 50 years – but also because it’s a critical missing link in any community’s ability to feed itself.” – Dan Barber
On a recent visit to Upingil Farm I asked Clifford Hatch, owner and head grower, what motivated him to start growing grains. “Purely youthful rebellion,” he replied with a chuckle. His father had told him he wouldn’t be able to make any money growing grains, and Clifford set out to prove him wrong. He bought some used equipment on ebay, and slowly started integrating grains into his crop plan. Today he grows about 25 acres of organic grain on his farm in Gill, MA, selling both whole grains and his freshly milled flour to local bakeries, and occasionally using it as animal feed on his farm.
Clifford is one of several farmers rebuilding the infrastructure and knowledge base for growing grains, lost in New England after a variety of factors pushed grain production to the Midwest in the late 1800s. In the last few years, small-scale grain production has begun making a comeback.
While commercial grain operations grow grain for uniformity and strip most of its bran and germ during the milling process in order to extend shelf life of flour, small-scale grain production prioritizes taste and nutrition. During small batch milling, grains retain their bran and germ producing truly whole grain flour that is tastier and full of nutrition. According to Clifford, this is really one of the eureka moments for people sampling home-milled flour for the first time. It really contains the whole grain. And you can taste it.
Although there are a plethora of challenges to growing grain, as there are for growing any crop, growing grain also has an abundance of benefits for small, diversified farms. Winter wheat varieties are seeded in the fall, and can act as a cover crop over the winter, protecting the soil from harsh winds rain and snow, and then harvested the following summer. At Upingil, they often plant grain in fields that need a rest, rotating in a planting of grain between plantings of more high value crops. Hatch also mentioned “Sometimes land just needs the cleaning up.”
In addition to selling the whole grains and grinding them into flour for sale, Hatch harvests the wheat straw to use as mulch on his strawberries. He is also able to use the chaff that gets cleaned from the grains in his chicken coop. Thus, in addition to growing delicious grain, farmers see other benefits for their farm when they integrate grain into their farming system.
From the farmer perspective, there are a many reasons to integrate grains into the farming system. For chefs, the draw to sourcing local grains should be their improved taste and nutrition. Just like you can taste the difference between a mass produced tomato and a fresh heirloom tomato just picked, you can tell the difference in taste of locally grown grain, milled in small batches.
Heritage varieties, specifically, have unique flavor and qualities that are becoming more and more desirable to bakers and chefs. These are ancient varieties of grain that have not been patented and thus growers are allowed to save the seed and re-grow them. Another key quality of heritage varieties is that over the years, they will adapt to the climate in which they are grown in. Many of these varieties are still on trial, and are not yet grown in enough quantity to be widely distributed. With enough willing farmers and gardeners to grow out these varieties, and enough willing bakers and chefs to source them, however, over the next few years we can hopefully bring back some of these ancient grains and start seeing them more regularly used in the kitchen.
On my way home from Upingil, I stopped into Wheatberry Bakery in Amherst, MA. Wheatberry grows some portion of their own grains on their family farm nearby, and is doing a lot of work with heritage grain varieties. They also source some of their grain from Clifford Hatch . They bake with these in their bakery, and also run a local grain CSA, providing members with approximately 100lbs per year of ancient and heritage wheats, heirloom dry beans, milling corn, barley and rye.
I treated myself to a bran muffin to eat on my way home. I told the woman at the counter that I could just take it in a napkin. No need for a bag since I was excited to eat it as soon as possible. Pulling out of my parking spot as I bit into the muffin, I had to stop the car to fully appreciate how delicious it was. The flavor was deep and complex and I knew I was tasting the whole grain. As the bite melted away in my mouth, I couldn’t wait to take the next one. And the next. The muffin was gone before I knew it.
Whether you are a farmer, a chef, an eater, or some combination of the three, this is a call to get involved in local grains. Grains have an incredibly long history. They are the most ancient of our domesticated plants. Today, our growing, sourcing and eating of grains is history in the making. According to Sylvia Davatz of Solstice Seeds in Vermont, grain is a subject around which it is possible to feel a lot of hope. By supporting small-scale grain growers, we can relearn the delicious tastes of whole grain.