2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — For several years, the NOFA-NY Winter Conference has featured workshops on organic grain production. This year’s presentations targeted both the gardening and farming contingents of NOFA’s membership, featuring farmers market sales, crop rotations and baking with local grains.
On Friday, Jan. 24, the first day of this year’s conference in Saratoga Springs, George Wright gave a full-day intensive workshop on “Selling Grains at the Farmers Market.” Wright runs Castor River Farm in Ontario, Canada, with Kim MacMullin. The two grow 35 acres of mixed small grains on a total of 50 acres.
Growing grains outside of the commodity system is tough, and Wright detailed how he tackles the challenges of growing grains organically, while also making grains a practical and profitable crop at a small scale.
Castor River Farm has managed to develop good processing methods and has found its market niche for maximizing profits. Using a small tabletop mill called a WonderMill, the farm sells freshly-ground grains by the cup. People buy whole and rolled grains, too.
“A hand grinder keeps the men and kids busy,” Wright said, describing how he’s managed to keep the primary shoppers at the farmers market interested in the stand. “Get the kids excited about the grinder and they’ll drag the moms every week.”
“In conservative Ottawa, the women are the only ones concerned with food,” MacMullin said.
The couple have noticed that people don’t tend to buy much flour without the encouragement of recipes, so they stock their booth with plenty of them. MacMullin tries to have both flour and oats included on each recipe she offers so people will buy both ingredients. For those who don’t bake, the couple offer mixes, trying to catch as many potential customers as possible.
Before they gained a following at the farmers market, Wright said he would run the mill without anything in it so he could draw attention to his stand. Vegetable farms can’t make a lot of noise, he said, but the mill is a great device to attract people and get them curious about products.
Oats represents 80 percent of the couple’s sales. They also sell the heritage wheat red fife, a variety of other hard and soft winter and spring wheats, barley, buckwheat, triticale and flax.
The workshop covered all aspects of grain production and sales, from field preparation to customer relations. Wright specified the tools he uses — and has used in the course of learning to farm grains — for each step in the process of each grain, and handed out six pages of notes and advice. He encouraged people to scout everywhere for help and find mentors and experts to quiz.
“Follow anything Dr. Heather Darby and Dr. Stephen Jones do,” he wrote in his handout.
He also mentioned Vermont farmer Jack Lazor more than once, referring to online plans for a homemade grain dryer, and to Lazor’s recent book, “The Organic Grain Grower: Small-Scale, Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer.”
On Saturday, Nick Storrs of the Randall Island Park Alliance in New York City, presented “Small-Scale Rice Production 101.” Storrs illustrated, step by step, the process of building paddies for rice and addressed how the crop fits in the one-acre urban farm the park runs as well as in its edible education programs.
“The kids involved eat a lot of rice,” Storrs said. “The classes always involve preparing and sharing food, and the foods reflect customs and cultures.”
In another session, June Russell of the Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, showed a baking video from the series, “A Local Grain Renaissance in the Northeast.” A project of the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network, or OGRIN, and Greenmarket/Grow NYC, the video was partially funded by a USDA Rural Development grant.
The video included bakers Matt Funicello of Rock Hill Bakehouse, Stefan Senders of Wide Awake Bakery, and Paul Mack of Eataly NYC, sharing stories of using local flours in baking bread. Don Lewis, a miller/baker with the Wild Hive Community Grain Project, and farmer Thor Oechsner, part owner of Farmer Ground Flour and Wide Awake Bakery, also contributed to the video, which can be viewed online.
After the screening, Russell led Lewis, Oechsner and Senders in a discussion on developing markets and consumer appetites for local grains, growing grains for food-grade levels and baking with locally grown and ground flours.
Lewis baked for New York City farmers markets run by Greenmarket. His ability to use the flour he milled himself was instrumental to the implementation of a rule that all Greenmarket bakers use a percentage of regionally-produced flour.
Immediately after the presentation, attendees followed Senders to a demonstration kitchen for a workshop on bread. Senders gave a lively show-and-tell about dough, prompting audience members to stand on chairs to get a good view of the characteristics he was describing. The baker held a crowd of 25 people long after the allotted time for the class.
On Sunday morning, Oechsner gave a presentation on “Rotations for a Quality Grain Farm.”
“My farm is based around a flour operation,” Oechsner said, “and I supply six distilleries and a malting house.”
The rotations are designed to support cash crop food-grade grains. He has one for his better soils and one for “not so good” soils, each spanning multiple years. Diversity of the crops is key, he said. He also varies his tillage as well as his planting dates to keep weeds out of balance.
“We want to be varying the crops we have to break diseases and serve varying nutrient demands,” he said. “We have some heavy feeders and light feeders.”