Lucky Dog Farm Adds Grains to Veggie Business

5/11/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

HAMDEN, N.Y. — Vegetable farmer Richard Giles is expanding his marketable crops to include grains. Lucky Dog Farm grows 40-60 acres of vegetables each year, using a combination of fields, heated greenhouses and cold frames. The farm sells locally and downstate through wholesale and direct markets.

“We use small grains for winter cover, and have for years,” said Giles. “Occasionally I’ve harvested for seed, but until Michael O’Malley came it was kind of a distraction to harvest in the summer.”

Usually, he tilled the rye under, but the fact that someone else wanted to be part of the enterprise changed things. Michael O’Malley is an artist who teaches in Los Angeles and has a farm near Lucky Dog. The two met through a CSA that Lucky Farm ran for a few years, and became friends. O’Malley is a baker — he’s done art projects that include building an oven and baking for the audience — and was curious about using local wheat.

His curiosity was not just talk. O’Malley helped research and find the wheat seed, which was planted in fall of 2011. He bought a tow-behind Allis Chalmers All Crop and readied the machine for harvesting. He prepped the storage space in Lucky Dog’s barn. When the wheat was ready, he ran the combine.

His enthusiasm for the project differed vastly from how Richard Giles thought about grains. He grew up in the south, and farmed large acreage grains in eastern Mississippi and western Alabama. The hard winter wheat he grew there was, he said, “Strictly a commodity crop that you take to the elevator and take what they offer. Up here, I’ve steered away from commodity crops because they are a dead end.”

This method of growing makes grains more like the vegetables Lucky Dog Farms grows: food that has a lot of value and variety.

“The diversification is good,” said Giles of adding the wheat to his product line. He likes the fact that cleaning and getting the flour milled is mostly a wintertime job. Farmer Ground Flour is a couple of hours away in Enfield, and is custom milling the wheat.

Lucky Dog is selling whole wheat berries and flour wholesale to a few restaurateurs, bakers and pasta makers upstate and in the city. The Lucky Dog Farm store and café, where his wife Holley uses some of the flour in baking bread, sells grains and flour, too. The whole grains and flour also go to farmers markets, which right now, are just in New York City.

“The wheat berries sell as well as the flour,” he said. “To me that’s really interesting and exciting, getting back to everything the food can do.”

The grains sold very well the day that Greenmarket, which runs farmers markets in the city and has been actively promoting production and use through their Regional Grain Project, made a risotto using the wheat and gave out samples.

Soil wise, grain crops are good rotations for the intensive vegetable farming Giles does, but until O’Malley expressed and acted upon his interest, harvesting was too much work at the wrong time for the farm. Together, the men made their first joint purchase for the enterprise: a brand new Clipper seed cleaner.

O’Malley and his partner, Mercedes, eventually want to grow grains on their farm, too. Because he is a baker, he would like to purchase a mill to experiment with more varieties all the way through the food chain. Last fall, Giles planted more Arapahoe, plus Expedition, Redeemer, and Red Fife wheats, plus some Danko rye.

Some of these seeds come from the Organic Growers Research and Information-sharing Network (OGRIN), whose OREI funded Value-added grains for local and regional food systems grant is helping farmers explore ways to capitalize on grain crops.

Agronomist Elizabeth Dyck runs OGRIN, and is a champion of small grains for their capacity to break disease cycles and build organic matter.

Vegetable farmers could really exploit this capacity because what they grow is not in the same family as grasses. However, adding another layer to the complexity of growing a variety of vegetables Lucky Dog Farm grows 40-50 types is a tall order. The infrastructure and know-how needed are only manageable in this instance because of O’Malley. This partnership is a model that might make the agronomical dream of grains in the rotation possible for more vegetable farmers.

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