Heritage Grains Offer Another Niche for Farmers

7/2/2011 10:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

AVELLA, Pa. — An increased demand for heritage varieties of wheat and grains is opening up a new niche for farmers seeking sustainability for their farms. But growing these grains is not without its share of problems.

Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farms in Avella and Elizabeth Dyck of Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN) spoke on the topic at a Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) field day last week.

“My parents, Dale and Marcy, and I became involved with growing grains after starting a grass-fed beef operation in 2006,” Tudor said. “We were looking for a source of straw to use as bedding and thought maybe it would be cost-effective to grow our own. We enjoyed it, and after the first year, we started adding more varieties.”

Their 102-acre farm, which has been operating organically since 1988 and was certified organic in 2008, now grows spelt, hard red wheat, soft wheat, emmer, spring wheat and einkorn, among others.

The Tudors have purchased a stone mill from Austria to start grinding their grains, and this fall they plan to begin selling flour directly to consumers.

Heirloom grain varieties, such as Red Fife, spelt, emmer and einkorn, are in growing demand by chefs, bakers and distillers, and are similar to heirloom vegetable varieties in that they are produce lower yields but have a better taste than common wheat varieties.

They are also very tolerant of heat, cold, drought, some diseases and low fertility.

“But there are several things growers of specialty grains need to consider before beginning this process,” Dyck said. “First, you need to be able to get high-quality, clean seed. This can be difficult because many of the heritage varieties have become secondary to the common ones.

“Once you find the seed, you need to make sure it is good quality,” she said. “The grower should have used a rotary cleaner and some type of air screen cleaner to remove debris, seeds contaminated with disease and weed seed. They should also be able to show you germination and vomitoxin test results.”

Vomitoxin is often found in wheat that is infected with wheat scab, or Fusarium blight. The FDA requires that food-grade wheat have levels below 1 ppm because higher levels can make humans and animals ill.

While Fusarium is found in the soil, it can also be reseeded through contaminated seed, causing heavy damage to the wheat crop and difficulty selling the harvested grain.

“Rotation of the crop is also critical to long-term grain-growing success,” Dyck said. “Fusarium will come in bigger quantities if wheat is planted back to back. Potatoes, vegetables, soybeans, oats and dry beans all work well as a break crop.”

“You can use some of your harvested grain as seed for your next planting,” Tudor said, “though every few years it doesn’t hurt to use certified seed again. And be sure that you are set up to harvest the grain when it is ready, having the equipment, storage space and a buyer or market for your product.”

“Leaving the wheat in the field after it is mature decreases the quality and increases your risk for disease,” Dyck said.

“For small growers, it may be possible to cut the stalks while the grain is still at the hard dough stage (approximately 20 percent moisture) and let the bundles dry indoors where the grain will continue to mature out of the weather,” she said.

“For larger growers, storing the bundles is not usually an option, but make sure your combine (or contractor) is ready to harvest the grain when it is ready to be harvested,” Dyck said. “And consider investing in drying equipment. Being able to combine it just a touch early and then dry it gives growers a larger window for bringing in a high-quality crop.”

The process of cleaning and drying the wheat should also be begun immediately.

“If the weeds in your fields were heavy — and in this area ragweed is everywhere — immediately send your wheat through a rotary cleaner,” Dyck said. “That will remove a lot of the wet, sticky debris from your wheat, which also helps it dry faster and can prevent an off-flavor in the wheat.

“Wheat dryers, screw-in aerators and fans are all options depending on the grower’s operation size,” she said.

“Because we are an organic farm, we don’t spray for weeds,” Tudor said. “For weed control, I seed clover at the same time I plant the grain. Not only does the clover work as a weed barrier, it also replaces some of the soil’s nitrogen, which grains need to grow well.”

After the wheat is dry, the second phase of cleaning can begin.

The Tudors use a Clipper cleaner, which has two screens for filtering debris. The screens allow for the removal of chaff, hulls and other debris. It also has an air blower near the end of the process which removes weed seeds as well as lighter grains that may be unviable or diseased.

“After it is cleaned and dried, it can be stored until it is shipped,” Tudor said. “While it is being stored, moths, bugs and rodents can be problems. We utilize dehumidifiers, pheromone traps and mouse traps to control them.”

Tudor and Dyck both recommend trying new grains on a very small scale.

“If you plant smaller quantities, you make smaller mistakes,” Tudor said, laughing.

“Beginning on a small scale also allows for equipment sharing,” Dyck said. “And equipment can be difficult to find, expensive to purchase and costly to maintain.

“Consider networking with other growers before spending all the money upfront,” she said. “For example, a neighbor may be willing to thresh your grain much cheaper than you could own all of your own equipment.”

Despite the potential difficulties, growing specialty grains can be a boon to a farm looking for a new market.

“Value-added products like bread and pasta are a route to consider,” Dyck said. “But even left as grain, it can be profitable. Directly marketed organic red wheat can sell for $15 to 20 a bushel, and emmer has gone for $6 to 9 a pound in New York city.”


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