June Russell of Greenmarket, GrowNYC

June Russell of Greenmarket, GrowNYC sets out the breads from the Brooklyn Bread Lab, made from organically grown local wheat varieties.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Small grains were a big crop in parts of the Northeast around 200 years ago, and now the “buy local” movement has revitalized the industry in New York state.

“They have now become a major part of my work,” Justin O’Dea, a commercial vegetable and field crop educator with Cornell Extension Ulster County, said at the recent “Sowing the Future of Organic Wheat in the Northeast” symposium at Cornell.

The symposium was sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New York, or NOFA-NY, Greenmarket-GrowNYC and the USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.

O’Dea said there were a number of reasons small wheat production moved West, including reduced yields in the Northeast due to Hessian fly, a decline in soil fertility and the opening of the Erie Canal.

O’Dea said that when he joined Extension several years ago, there was already extensive interest in fresh-market fruit, vegetable and dairy products. By 2012, he was doing a lot of work with local grains.

For local small grain production to remain viable, though, “they have to be high value/acre crops,” he said.

Field trials on the best small grain varieties are being conducted through a collaboration that includes the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Mark Sorrells with Cornell’s Plant Breeding and Genetics Station, and Cornell Extension Ulster County.

“The first season was challenging as the farm had been in intensive corn production for a long time and, in addition, we had some management issues, but this year things are looking much better,” O’Dea said.

The purpose of the fields trials is to assess each variety for yield potential and disease resistance.

June Russell of New York City Greenmarkets and GrowNYC talked about growing consumer interest in heritage grains, locally grown products and organic grains.

Russell, who has been working on facilitating the production and processing of grains in the region, said that instead of working with established bakeries, she has found it easier to get small bakeries, or even startups, using locally grown small grains.

“Every year we have more products. They include breads, pastas and brewery products,” Russell said.

“At Greenmarket’s regional grains, 90 percent are now organic, and we work with 24 different farms and millers,” she said.

Working with cooking schools would be a good way of introducing future chefs to regional and heritage grains, she said.

“I am encouraged that the Culinary Institute at Hyde Park, N.Y., did get involved,” she said.

Small grains aren’t just to make bread. Russell showed the audience photos of supermarket shelves with pasta made from Emmer and Red Fife raisin bran.

Small grains are also being used in craft beers and spirits. Currently, craft brewers in the state are required to use a minimum 20 percent New York-grown ingredients, including corn, barley, rye and wheat. Starting in 2019, that requirement will rise to 60 percent New York ingredients, and 90 percent New York ingredients by 2024.

The state’s distillery license requires the use of 75 percent New York-grown ingredients.

“There is a lot more interest by consumers in heritage grains, local and organic than ever, and it just keeps on growing,” she said.

Eli Rogosa, director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and an artisanal baker from Colrain, Mass., talked about some of her work with wheat landraces.

“These landraces have a wealth of untapped genetic diversity, but we need collaboration and community seed systems to multiply the seed, restore biodiversity and protect it for the future,” Rogosa said.

Her studies have focused on Einkorn, which she said has potential to help people with celiac disease. She also said the wheat can be used as a soil builder.

Rogosa’s book, “Restoring Heritage Grains,” will be released later this month and covers the reasons and methods for restoring wheat biodiversity, methods of grain growing, folklore and recipes for baking with Einkorn.

Sandra Wayman, a research technician with the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab, talked about perennial grains. Working with the intermediate wheat grass Kernza, developed by The Land Institute, Wayman said “it can do good things for the soil, but we need to find ways of making it more economical as disease can be an issue and yields are low.”

Currently, Kernza yields 25 percent of what traditional annual wheat varieties yields. Wayman said she and her colleagues this season are looking at the effects of forage harvesting on grain yield. “We have a 3 year SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to develop perennial grains for the region” she said.

Heather Darby, profressor of agronomy at the University of Vermont who has directed a bread wheat project in New England, said she felt various groups — growers and bakers — didn’t understand each other’s issues.

“When we embarked on the bread wheat project, we thought that yield and protein would be the main issues that we’d have to overcome. But it has turned out that low falling number has been the number one issue,” she said.

Darby said information sharing between various groups will be critical if local grain production is going to succeed.

“We made a visit to Denmark and what we learned from that visit has had a big impact on helping us move things along at UVM. One thing we really need to do is to figure out how to fund organic variety trails for longer periods than is usually provided from traditional grants,” she said.

Even though some heirloom varieties are of interest to consumers, Darby said some should be left alone because they either taste bad or yield very poorly.

“We’re excited about making our own history from wheat crosses performed with growers. A couple look good and are ready for release,” she said.

When it comes to organic production, Darby said Fusarium head blight is a major issue in her area. Her lab, in collaboration with other researchers, has performed some mycotoxin work. She said that on average they are able to harvest wheat with DON levels suitable for human consumption one out of every five years.

Thus far, Darby said organic fungicides haven’t shown great promise and varietal resistance is the main method of disease control. She said the variety Tom has shown good resistance to Fusarium head blight and is of good value organic producers, but as it didn’t fit the needs of conventional growers, it is no longer available.

“We need to figure out how to keep varieties like this that have potential for organic producers who have different needs from conventional producers,” she said.

Weed management is also a major issue and Darby said she’s looked at using narrow rows as well as doing band planting, a method she and her colleagues saw being used successfully in Sweden.

For those interested in learning more of Darby’s research, go to http://uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil.

Helen Margaret Griffiths is a freelance writer in south-central New York

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