Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Such and such grain farmer built a grist mill on a stream that ran through his land at the south part of town. The mill was capable of doing only a small business, but it was of great convenience to the people living in the vicinity. This is a slight variation of a story told multiple times in records of farm life in the early 1800s in Maine. It is one that ceases in the 1860s, when with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad the grain market in the Midwest began to grow into the dominant grain-producing area it is today. By the beginning of the 20th century, most of the family owned grist mills that had existed in hundreds of small towns in New England so local farmers could transport their grain there to be milled and used for human consumption, had shuttered.
With the growth of the local food movement and support of our local agricultural economy, communities are localizing their food systems and making tangible changes from the ground up. In Maine and Vermont farmers, millers, bakers, and researchers are working together to reestablish a local grain economy. Can you think of a better way to compliment local eggs, meats, fruits and vegetables than with a loaf of bread made with local grains, processed locally?
Several posts will be dedicated to this emerging movement from the planting of this year’s spring wheat crop through the August harvest, including the milling of the grain and the testing of the flour’s “performance" by artisan bakers.
The Farmers, Part One – Local Grain Economy
In the last few years, a grist mill renovation project in central Maine has taken shape and begun reviving local grain production by providing a means to process it. Working collaboratively with the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine, and several artisan bakers, a group of 10 researchers and extension educators at the University of Maine and the University of Vermont, with funding from the USDA, are working to increase farmers’ capacity to produce high-quality organic bread wheat. Specifically, the Northern New England Local Bread Wheat project is identifying wheat varieties suited for organic production in Maine and Vermont, developing fertility strategies for high-quality grain, and evaluating innovative weed management systems. They are also creating tools for farmers (videos, budgets…) and education opportunities (regional workshops, local field days…).
Maine farmers such as Matt Porter, who is a fourth generation potato farmer in Aroostook County, have been growing barley and oats for years. Thanks to the Somerset Grist Mill and Northern New England Local Bread Wheat project, there are emerging opportunities to sell grain outside of the agricultural commodities market. This is good business for farmers like Porter who want to expand further from potatoes into grains. Farmer Tate McPherson, Owner of the Maine Seed Company, LLC., the marketing arm for partnering farms including Porter Farms (run by Matt Porter and his family) feels with more opportunities to sell there is less risk, and the farmers can feel good about feeding people in their home state. The Maine Seed Company is the largest supplier of wheat, barley, oats, and rye for the Somerset Grist Mill (which currently purchases grains from five Maine farmers).
“Last year, Matt Porter grew enough wheat to put 12 loaves of bread in every household in Maine according to the Maine census stats,” said McPherson. “This is fun, exciting, interesting, rewarding, and (feels like) we are doing the right thing.”
Combined, the Maine Seed Company and partner farms grow about 3,500 acres of cereal crops. In 2012, they put in an additional 75 acres of wheat in anticipation of the mill’s growth. More land is being prepped and amended to get ready for fall and spring plantings.
“Our mill will expand to include more grains in the coming year to include rye, emmer, flint corn, red fife wheat, and spelt,” said Amber Lambke, President of the Somerset Grist Mill, LLC. “We have just secured a commitment from the Whole Foods (Market) production bakery in Boston, MA for 30 tons of organic whole wheat flour starting in September. We hope to continue to drive the production and demand for organic grains grown in Maine.”
According to the USDA, there will be 9 billion people on this planet by the year 2050. Farmers will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as they have in the last 500. To do this, we need cropping systems that are sustainable and include conservation measures.
“Aroostook County has 150,000 acres of cropland which is usually 1/3 potatoes, 1/3 grain, and the other 1/3 split between clover and broccoli, depending on the rotation,” Darol Wilson, District Conservationist Presque Isle Field Office, USDA said. “The more residue (previous crop stems) is returned to the soil, the higher the organic matter. It is a direct comparison proven over many years of research. Decomposition is the key to the process as the soil breaks down the residue and converts it into organic matter. Organic matter is the glue the binds the soil particles and nutrients together for a healthy soil.
A multi-year crop rotation is considered an effective method to improve soil structure, recycle nutrients, and reduce weeds and insects. (For more information on sustainable crop rotations check out this fact sheet from Ohio State University). “Oats are historically a common rotation crop, because they out compete weeds, so if a farmer wanted to control weeds in an organic system, he would grow oats,” said Lambke. “With the onset of chemicals people stopped growing strains of grain as a weed control tool. That’s when you started seeing a monopoly and less (varieties of) grains in general anywhere.”
“Grains are not just a smart thing to do, because they are a cash crop for farmers, but also part of a healthy ecosystem,” added Lambke.
McPherson and his partner farmers in Aroostook County are implementing a three-year crop rotation (potatoes, cereal grains, and clover or another cover crop). They do not chemically treat the wheat crop, but because the potatoes grown before it would have been treated with fungicides it is classified as natural not organic.
With the new Whole Foods Market contract, McPherson and partners are adding 200-250 acres of MOFGA certified organic land to grow organic grains (much of this land is leased).
Wheat Variety Selection Process
Wheat varieties grown in the United States are classified as "winter wheat" or "spring wheat," depending on the season when each is planted. There are five major classes of wheat grown commercially in the United States: Hard Red Spring, Hard Red Winter, White (hard and soft), Durum, and Soft Red Winter. There are also a number of individual varieties. For more information on classes and uses of wheat visit Ohio State University’s website or the USDA.
Choosing a wheat variety is one of the most important management decisions a farmer can make. Farmers look at hardiness, flavor, crop yield, and durability in milling and storage.
Maine Seed Company grows hard red spring wheat, which is planted during the first part of May and harvested in August. Hard red spring wheat has the highest protein content of all U.S. wheat, making it a very good bread wheat For more information on hard red spring wheat visit the North Dakota Wheat Commission site and for baking characteristics visit King Arthur Flour’s site.
McPherson and Porter chose to grow the hard red spring wheat varieties Glenn, Yorkton, and Magog. All three are in Dr. Ellen Mallory’s Northern New England Local Bread Wheat Project variety trials. McPherson and Porter look at Dr. Mallory’s work and consult with Lambke before committing to a variety. They also read trial results done by Dr. Heather Darby, an Agronomist and Nutrient Management Specialist, and her team at the University of Vermont Extension.
This is the first year McPherson, Porter, and partners are planting Yorkton, which is out of the North Dakota State University’s wheat breeding program. If it does well, McPherson said they will grow it again next year, and if it continues to perform well they will expand growth acreage in the third year.
During my visit to Aroostook County, McPherson talked about South Dakota State University’s (SDSU) wheat breeding program and a desire to travel there and see firsthand what they are doing. SDSU is one of only three institutions in the nation to have long-term breeding programs for both winter wheat and spring wheat.
Upon looking into SDSU’s breeding program I found they have a wheat breeding partnership with Bayer CropScience (a global enterprise known for producing pest controls and the primary rival of seed giant Monsanto). Having followed Monsanto’s fights with multiple farmers (most recently in this seed patent case) I contacted SDSU to learn more about the partnership.
According to Kevin D. Kephart, Vice President for Research at South Dakota State University, the agreement with Bayer is a license agreement, not a research support agreement. “We have provided Bayer with access to our wheat breeding materials so the they could build up their own genetics base,” Kephart wrote me. “The license agreement is non-exclusive, meaning that Bayer cannot lock up this material in any way that prohibits us from using it ourselves or prevent us from licensing it to any other entity that we might want to license it to. The license does not give Bayer any ownership to the material, it remains to be SDSU's property.”
To maximize crop yield, three things must be done well: seed spacing, seed depth, and seed-to-soil contact without sidewall compaction. This is why a tractor-drawn grain drill, like the one made by Great Plains, is one of the primary pieces of planting equipment farmers such as McPherson and Porter use to plant grain seeds.
It was not just the sheer size of a 40-foot long planter that impressed me, but the technology I saw when I climbed into the tractor to hang out with Richard Porter, Matt Porter’s dad and a fifth generation potato farmer, while he planted barley seeds. My first reaction to learning about the advanced technology being used to farm in Aroostook County was, this is something NASA produced. Well, not quite…but NASA technology is piloting farm equipment!
Several years ago, farmers begin using satellite technology to track and plan their farming practices with the goal of optimizing returns on inputs. Richard Porter told me he was convinced to use a Global Positioning System (GPS) when he realized it could save him 8-10% of seed, time, and materials by not overlapping. According to Porter, John Deere came out with a GPS-based application system about 8 years ago, however it was too expensive at the time for anything but a large farming operation. Porter explained, with the cost having come down in the past few years about 80% of the Porter family’s acreage is now tied to GPS. Matt Porter worked with other growers to put a GPS system in place so they could use it on all the farms and create a line of sight to the central receiver.
According to GPS.gov “These technologies enable the coupling of real-time data collection with accurate position information, leading to the efficient manipulation and analysis of large amounts of geospatial data. GPS-based applications in precision farming are being used for farm planning, field mapping, soil sampling, tractor guidance, crop scouting, variable rate applications, and yield mapping. GPS allows farmers to work during low visibility field conditions such as rain, dust, fog, and darkness.”
Check out this online brochure from John Deere on their guidance systems.
Aroostook: The Last Frontier by Charles Morrow Wilson (can be found in the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library)
The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery by John Deere
Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.