Adding Value to Grain Proves a Successful Move for NY Operation

7/21/2010 11:34 AM
By Maegan Crandall Central N.Y. Correspondent

NEWFIELD, N.Y. The recent heat wave didn't deter a large group of farmers, consumers and agricultural professionals from attending an informative field day sponsored by Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) where they trekked through waist-high fields of wheat and emmer crops. Thor Oechsner, grain farmer and owner of Oechsner Farms, invited the group to his farm to explore his grain Operation, network, and sample a few of his finished products, including hand-made emmer pasta, coffee cake and wheat bread. Initially, Oechsner started out as a vegetable farmer, moved into growing grain for the dairy business, and finally transitioned into producing food-quality grains. I m still learning and still new at this, but it has been really, really interesting, said Oechsner. A couple years back the feed prices were really high, everything was great, and then the economy crashed. The dairy markets crashed, and then grain prices went with them - along with the demand for cheap grain. Today, Oechsner is producing a variety of food-grade crops, including winter and spring wheat, spelt, oats, buckwheat, and the ancient grain emmer. Additionally, about a year ago, Oechsner also added a mill to his Operation, hired his friend Greg Mol to run it, and began grinding his grains. We had no concept of how complicated making flour is. Ignorance was bliss for us. We thought you could put grain in the top and out comes the flour, he joked. Further, while the process of making the flour itself proved difficult, getting the mill up and running was also complicated. As soon as you change the formula from a whole grain to a flour you are now under New York State Ag and Markets oversight and you need a commercial kitchen license to proceed. It s something to consider if you want to get into this, said Oechsner. Oechsner is now selling his grains to several different bakeries and works in collaboration with another local grain company, Cayuga Pure Organics, to provide the market with ample product. Cayuga pure organics already does direct marketing at the Greenmarket in New York City. That really let us have a jump start, because people there are really enthusiastic about local products and they are very forgiving of the mistakes we might make. New York City is two-thirds of what we do, said Mol. Oechsner Farms also markets to several restaurants, food co-ops, and is thinking about building a direct relationship with Whole Foods. While the new crops are proving successful for Oechsner, he also admits that it s a completely different way of operating, and it has made farming a whole lot more complicated for him. The plus side of it is as opposed to a feed-grade grain and a food-grade grain you can get a whole lot more money for it. But, it s a lot more work and a lot more risk. So, I would say if you don't want to put a lot of extra time into making your grain into a product that can be ground, and cleaning it, and you have to be really on top of harvesting, drying, storage, all those things. If you mess any of those up, you can end up with a product that s not very sellable, he said. However, Elizabeth Dyck, a representative from the Northeast Organic Wheat Project, pointed out that many of these food-quality grains such as hard red winter wheat have additional benefits. Hard red winter wheat is a bread wheat and it has several great advantages. It is much better in terms of weed control, and it can have a much higher yield of around 60 bushels an acre under organic conditions. Spring wheat only has around 35, if you re lucky. The other difference between hard red winter and hard red spring is the hard red spring usually has a much higher quality grain in terms of protein content, she said. Additionally, June Russell, farm inspector and strategic development manager for New York City s Greenmarket, points out that local grains are increasingly being used by the bakers. We're trying to build a market. There is a new rule change in Greenmarket that requires bakers to use 15 percent of regional grain. That is creating some demand. So, it s something we're working on because the market in New York City is so powerful that we can really give this a jumpstart. The main thing is that the circle is working, that the growers have a market to sell, and the bakers have a market to find it, said Russell. To complete the circle, Oechsner is now in the process of helping to fund a local bakery that will use his flour from his mill to produce a finished product of bread and pasta. We will be moving a lot of our wheat from our farm, to the flour mill, to the bakery, and have a finished product. We plan on starting a bread CSA so people will buy a share and every week you ll get fresh pasta and bread made with local grain. I invested in this because I see it as an investment in my market, said Oechsner. By adding value after value to his grain Operation, Oechsner admits his particular role in his business has also evolved. I will say that I spend a lot more time in the office than I ever did. I spend a lot more time on the phone now trying to market products, whereas before I sold to two or three people, the tractor trailers would come, I d empty a bin out in a couple of days, and I d have time to go sit on the couch and watch a college football game. So, it s added a lot of time to what I do, he joked.

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