Grain CSAs Allow Farmers to Diversify

6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

CSAs are a popular method of connecting consumers to food. While the most common community supported agriculture models are vegetable farms, spinoffs on this style of marketing, where people pay a set amount to get a portion of the harvest, are popular. Bread, meat and milk CSAs are available on their own and as add-ons to vegetable shares. Another add-on and stand-alone category is grains.

Some grain CSAs, like one in Haliburton Highlands, Ontario, are very small and grow from a consumer desire to get staple foods from a local source. This group has about 15 members and a few farms growing grains.

Other grain CSAs are larger scale. Washington state’s Bluebird Grain Farms does about 10 percent of its marketing and production through a CSA, selling grains and flour to about 100 local and mail-order customers each year.

Massachusetts is home to two grain CSAs, The Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA and the Northeast Organic Grain and Malt Offering.

“We always wanted to have a source of grain from local farmers,” said Adrie Lester, who runs Wheatberry Café with her husband Ben in Amherst, Mass. The couple started the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA in 2009.

When the price of flour tripled in 2007-2008, the desire to get local grains took on some urgency.

“It began to seem like it would be possible to pay farmers what it would cost for them because it wouldn’t be so different from the commodity market,” said Adrie Lester.

About this time, another bakery in the area, Hungry Ghost, solicited the help of all kinds of growers as they sought non-commodity grains. The bakery gave wheat seeds to their customers and got people to grow grains in their front yards and community garden plots. The effort of this Little Red Hen Wheat Project was largely symbolic, but it helped build farmer interest in grain growing in western Massachusetts.

Alan Zuchowski was already curious and was growing different types of milling corn for home use. A vegetable grower who grows for the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA, his largest crop is sweet corn. He also grows winter and summer squash and some broad-leaf tobacco for cigars. The tobacco market is slow and poor, he said, and he used to do more. Now, his tobacco barn works for drying wheat, with the siding open for ventilation.

The Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA had about 50 members its first year and 170 members in 2012. While only 35 members are signed up right now, most people sign up in the fall. Five farms are growing more than 30 acres.

The Lesters initially grew grains themselves, but now they just grow samples of heritage seed varieties for other farmers to plant.

Zuchowski grows heritage varieties, such as a type he got from the Plimoth Plantation. The grains require careful cultivation and sometimes hand hoeing, so they are labor intensive and expensive to produce. He harvests the 3 acres by hand and borrows a sheller from a neighbor.

The University of Massachusetts had test plots of wheat and Zuchowski volunteered to multiply varieties of seed from just a small sample. Red lamas is one type he now grows for the CSA. He grows 5 acres of wheat altogether and a neighbor combines the harvest. Most of the harvest gets sold within a month or two. He also sells a small quantity of spelt to V-One Vodka.

“If I could mechanize my operation more, it could be more profitable,” said Zuchowski of the grain enterprise. “The corn stays in the field till we get some good hard freezes, which takes out a lot of the moisture.”

Growing grains extends the season a little longer, he said, and lets him sell something at a time of the year when he normally wouldn’t have income. Another benefit is the novelty.

“A lot of my crops I’ve been doing all my life, but when you do something new it makes the season more interesting,” he said.

People who grow grain for the CSA have been using seed cleaning and decoupling equipment at a granary located at Lampson Brook Farms in Belchertown, Mass., set up by the New England Small Farm Institute.

Tim Storrow and Cliff Hatch also grow grain for the CSA, in a joint venture called Gill Organic Grains. Storrow and his wife, Doff, raise sheep for meat as well as some beef and like how grains work in their field rotations. Hatch’s Upinngil Farms in Gill, Mass., is a diversified farm that runs a raw milk dairy and makes cheese; grains fit in well with their plans too.

Gill Organic Grains started three years ago. Storrow grows between 16 and 25 acres and Hatch grows a little more.

The two share labor and equipment and are purchasing the combine they borrowed for last year’s harvest. They don’t have plans to expand because with land rents at $300 an acre, you can’t make money on grains.

About 60 percent of their harvest is sold through the CSA and a small portion goes to another CSA’s winter share as an add-on. The remainder is sold either through Upinngil’s store or to bakers. The store has a small table-top mill to grind flour for sale.

Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., mills larger quantities for sale to bakeries like El Jardin and Bread Euphoria.

The other grain CSA in the Pioneer Valley is the Northeast Organic Grain and Malt Offering or NOGMO. While some whole grains are featured, most of the food in this CSA are value-added products, like malt and flour.

Andrea Stanley from Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., organized the CSA to introduce people to staple products. CSAs put boxes of vegetables into people’s kitchens — why not use this device to make people aware of the different types of staple foods that are also grown in the Northeast?

“In a way this project is just my attempt at educating people to the fact that these products can be grown locally and that the processors are an important piece of the infrastructure,” said Stanley.

Popcorn and dry beans from another Hadley farm, Next Barn Over, are also included in the shares. Other food in the three monthly pickups will come not just from western Massachusetts, but also Maine and New York.

Lakeview Organics’ Freekeh, a green roasted spelt from the central New York farm, is included.

Products from Maine Grains in Skowhegan, Maine, and Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg, N.Y., also reach customers in the Pioneer Valley.

Clover Food Lab is a local food enterprise that runs food trucks and shops, also hosts CSA pickups for a number of New England farms.

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