WESTFIELD, Vt. — Amber waves of grain are rippling again in parts of New England, once considered the region’s bread basket.
Vermont and Maine ceded that distinction to the Midwest in the 1800s, when the Erie Canal and intercontinental railroad made it easier to move grain long distances.
But small farmers on the nation’s coasts have begun planting wheat again as more people clamor for locally grown food. Along with New England, fields have been sprouting in California, Oregon and Washington in the last five years.
Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder at Washington State University, described the local grains movement as “huge.”
“At first when people hear it, they think it’s wheat out of place but actually it’s wheat where it was grown quite a bit,” Jones said. “If you look even at California and places like that, they were the wheat states until they could grow more profitable crops, and then grains left these areas and went to places where that’s about all you can grow.”
New England didn’t turn to more profitable crops as much as it lost ground to Kansas and other areas with vast tracts of land and less damaging humidity. Ellen Mallory, sustainable agriculture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said farmers in Maine and Vermont aren’t looking to compete with big growers in the Great Plains but hope to find their own niche.
“There’s this surge of interest in local foods that has included bread and locally grown wheat that’s milled into flour and farmers recognizing an opportunity to add another crop to their systems,” she said.
Jack and Anne Lazor started growing wheat for themselves in the 1970s after they bought a hillside farm in Westfield in northern Vermont. While their primary business is still making yogurt, over the past eight years, they’ve begun selling wheat and other grains to food cooperatives, bakers and at farmers’ markets.
Their whole wheat white flour sells for $1.19 a pound and pastry flour goes for $1.29 in the bulk department of an area food cooperative, a bit less than some other organic flours.
While prices vary nationwide, flour from local grains typically costs at least 50 percent more than commodity flour, Jones said.
The local grains movement got a push three years ago when the commodity market skyrocketed and a bushel of wheat that normally would go for $4 to $8 rose to $25. Some bakers went out of business because they couldn’t afford the flour, Jones said.
Dairy farmers also struggled with higher grain prices, and some started growing their own feed for their cows. Then they saw that they might be able to fill some of the demand for human consumption. Now there are about 30 farmers in Vermont and Maine growing at least two acres of grains, and a number of others with smaller plots.
Mark Pollard, who owns Bread Euphoria bakery in Haydenville, Mass., began looking for local wheat eight years ago because he wanted to support local farmers and reduce the carbon footprint of bringing in wheat from out of state.
“At that point, nobody around here really knew how to do it or had the harvesting equipment,” he said.
He bought wheat and ground it himself until he found a farmer willing to take on the challenge. Clifford Hatch, who owns Upinngil farm, said one difficulty has been the relatively high humidity in New England. Burlington, Vt., for example, gets an average of 3.43 inches in July compared to western Kansas’ 2 inches.
“It’s very seldom we can count on having two, three, a whole month with no rain to dry the crop, harvest it,” said Hatch, who’s in Gill, Mass.
Mallory and Heather Darby, an agronomist for the University of Vermont Extension, have been working with farmers to find grains that could work well in the region and improve farm practices, such as by harvesting earlier and drying wheat in bins with a fan.
“You can’t control the weather but you can sort of come up with different strategies to help manage the weather that’s brought to us,” Darby said.
The University of Vermont also has set up a lab so that farmers no longer have to ship wheat long distances for quality and mycotoxin tests, a disease that likes humidity.
Randy George, who owns Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vt., said the quality of local grains has “come a long way.” Bakers need a certain level of protein and low enzyme activity. He said he’s gone from thinking he could only use 20 percent local grains because of the quality to making a loaf entirely from Vermont grains.
“It has grains from three different farms in it and you know it’s fun, I know all these guys, I know all three of them and I’m making a bread right from their farms,” said George, who buys 65,000 pounds of local grain a year, compared to just 15,000 pounds he bought three years ago.