• Publishers' Note Spring 2009 shovel

    Let’s look at what we Vermonters might eat on a typical day in, say, March. Hot steaming oatmeal with dried apples and maple syrup starts the day. For lunch, we make a soup with root vegetables and barley—and of course we’ll add a slice of multigrain bread. Finally, dinner consists of baked beans, sausage, and sauerkraut. And during the cooking process for all these meals, we would inevitably use salt and oil.

  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, with large meadow in the foreground. Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

  • The 9' x 12' Vegetable Garden Henry Homeyer gardening

    If you’re able to devote 15 minutes a day to gardening and are willing to give up a piece of your lawn roughly the size of the parking space for your car, you can grow a significant amount of good food—food that is organic, food that is tasty, food that is healthy. During World War II, Americans started “victory gardens,” growing up to 40 percent of their fresh produce. In these tough economic times, it again makes sense for us to grow some of our own food.

  • Vermont’s Newest Grain? Rice paddy in Putney

    People are often surprised to hear that rice can be grown in Vermont. After all, this grass is known as a tropical plant. But cultivated rice, first domesticated 6,000 years ago, is divided into two subspecies: O. sativa ‘indica,’ which is the long–grain type (such as jasmine or basmati) grown in tropical southern regions, and O. sativa ‘japonica,’ which is a shorter, rounder grain that is more cold tolerant. Japonica rice has been grown in Japan, of course, but also in more surprising temperate climates, such as the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Romania.

  • Set the Table with Peasant Food Midieval woodblock print of peasants farming

    Many people say they don’t buy into the localvore movement because local food is “elitist.” ?Yet some of the world’s great cuisines—Chinese, Italian, country French, Indian—have their roots among people who had the least to work with: peasants. What can we learn from peasant cultures that can help us eat both economically and locally at the same time?

  • Who Will This Feed? Illustration of grist mill ,City Mills Company, from the collection of the Historic American Engineering Record (Library of Congress)

    Imagine yourself in the future—say the spring of 2016. Farmers and growers in Vermont are planting numerous varieties of grains, as well as oilseed crops. What are they growing? And when it’s time for harvest, who—or what—will these crops feed?

  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring Robinson Family Tree

    The 1860s were a tumultuous time for the Robinsons. Rachel Gilpin Robinson, wife of Rowland Thomas Robinson, passed away in 1862, shortly after dismissing longtime housekeeper Naomi Griswold from service. Because Rachel and Rowland’s daughter, Ann Robinson Minturn, was living far from her family in Waterloo, NY, Rachel’s death meant that a large home and farm were left in the hands of an aging father and his two bachelor sons, along with a new, unfamiliar housekeeper and a revolving cast of hired men who sometimes lived on the farm.

  • Jack Lazor and the Graining of Vermont Jack and Anne Lazor

    Jack Lazor is the first to admit he’s got his fingers in a lot of pies. He says so with a chuckle, his gentle eyes sparkling like the bright mid–afternoon sun reflecting off newly fallen snow. Among his “pies” are grain–growing experiments to find varieties that thrive in Vermont, infrastructure development for the processing and storage of staple foods like beans and cooking oils, and a plethora of workshops in which he shares what he’s learned in his 30 years of farming.

  • The Return of the Root Cellar Storage barrels

    The globalized food chain that Americans have increasingly relied on for over 50 years has begun to show its weaknesses—and inevitable failure. There are many weak links in the chain, but the weakest are storage and distribution. These aspects of modern food production contribute significantly to energy consumption: fossil fuel is required to ship food from far away, to keep food fresh during long–distance transport, and to store food over a long period of time. How can we opt out of this destructive system?

  • The Winooski Bean Thresher Co–op Bicycle powered bean thresher

    I moved to Vermont in 1989 with a desire to garden and build a self–sufficient life—values I inherited from my mother. As I began growing food for myself and friends, I naturally started out with the basics, also known as “the three sisters” native to the Americas: corn, beans, and squash. I grew winter squashes, Maine black turtle beans, and sweet corn—or at least tried to. The crows plucked up nearly every corn seed that sprouted from the earth, and the cucumber beetles attacked my squash plants.

  • Farmers' Kitchen—Spilling the Beans Jennifer and Spencer Blackwellshovel

    A rustic wooden bin filled with black beans sits on our table at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market. Some delighted customers march right up and serve themselves heaping bags full. Others slowly approach our stand to see what’s in the bin. These folks are either disappointed that we’re not selling what appeared to be roasted coffee beans or, more often, they just stand and contemplate the implications of a purchase. Cooking beans is a new and time–consuming activity for most. But people are often excited to learn that dry beans are being grown in Vermont, and many are surprised to know that it’s even possible in our climate.

  • Last Morsel—Robert King pitchforks

    Robert King is renowned in southeast Vermont for his vast knowledge of gardening and the many workshops he leads to teach people how to grow their own food. His longtime friend Ron Krupp recently interviewed him about his life. This is a portion of that interview.

Who Will This Feed?

Local Grain and Oil Production in Vermont

Illustration of grist mill ,City Mills Company, from the collection of the Historic American Engineering Record (Library of Congress)

Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

March 01 , 2009

Imagine yourself in the future—say the spring of 2016. Farmers and growers in Vermont are planting numerous varieties of grains, as well as oilseed crops. What are they growing? And when it’s time for harvest, who—or what—will these crops feed?

As humans, we tend to think of feeding ourselves first. We know that grains form the foundation of the food pyramid and that oils are used extensively in cooking. Think of the comfort of hot oatmeal on a cold morning, the tantalizing aroma of bread baking in the oven, or the localvore’s heartfelt satisfaction in making a local vegetable stir–fry cooked in fresh sunflower oil from a Vermont farm.

But we aren’t the only ones to eat grains and oilseeds. Grains can feed livestock from whom we, in turn, derive several forms of protein: eggs, dairy products, and meat. Grains also offer supplemental feed for draft animals. And planted as cover crops, they feed the soil and increase its fertility. As for oils, they can feed the most recent arrival on the agricultural scene, the diesel–powered engine, when transformed into biodiesel fuel. And the solids that are left over from oilseed production can feed livestock. 

It can be a challenge to find local grains and oils today. But a renaissance of grain growing and oil production is taking hold in Vermont. You can see pockets of evidence: in seed catalog listings, in the bulk bins at local food co–ops, in the “localvore loaves” baked by local bakers, and in the establishment of two on–farm biodiesel production facilities. This is a time of experimentation and innovation.

Not that grain growing is easy. But we can take heart in the fact that it has been done before.

....

When Vermont’s population was 85,000 residents, 58 grist mills in communities around the state ground grain into flour. Vermont was known as “New England’s bread basket.” But that changed with westward expansion and agricultural development of the Midwest. The growing conditions there—soil and weather—were more favorable to grain production, and the development of canals in the 1820s and railroads in the 1870s made it easier to ship those crops back east. Vermont’s decline in grain production began in the late 1800s and continued for about 100 years, roughly spanning the post–Civil War years to the era of civil rights.

The recent revitalization of basic staple crops in Vermont has its roots in the small–scale organic farm movement that began in the 1970s as part of the “Back to the Land” movement. Many participants in this movement had no prior experience growing food, but those who became farmers ended up playing an inestimable role in developing basic food sources. The best known names in grain are farmers who have been here a while: Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm (see page 16), Ben Gleason of Gleason Grains in the Champlain Valley, and, more recently, Jim Greer of Great River Farm in the Connecticut River Valley.

“Growing grains for a living is not for the faint of heart,” says Heather Darby, a native Vermonter and UVM Extension’s Field Crops & Nutrient Management Specialist since 2004. Even though it sounds like a warning, she speaks with her characteristic cheerfulness.

“It’s interesting how complicated it is,” adds Brent Beidler of Beidler Family Farm in Randolph Center. “It’s hard to explain or understand until you are in the middle of it.”

....

Beidler has been growing grains for five years. He raises three primary grain crops: wheat for humans, Japanese millet (a cover crop) for seed, and camelina, a plant native to northern Europe and central Asia, for oil. He owns a small combine, which he bought used at a relatively low price. The scale of equipment that works well on Vermont grain fields is generally considered outdated or too small by Midwestern standards.

“You need a lot of stuff,” says Lazor, whose Butterworks Farm produces sunflowers for oil and grain crops for humans, dairy cows, and seed, including several types of wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats. “I’ve been collecting equipment for 30 years and I still don’t have enough.”

The specialized equipment needed to harvest and process grains and oilseeds is a major reason why staples such as oats and sunflower oil are among the last, hard–to–find items on the localvores’ shopping list. The exact steps vary with the type of crop, but in general, growing grains and oils requires cutting, threshing, separating, winnowing, conditioning, and processing (milling or pressing). Storage that protects grain from birds, rodents, moisture, and dust is also an issue.

Interestingly though, right now it’s not equipment or infrastructure issues that pose the biggest challenge to Vermont’s current crop of grain growers. According to Beidler, what they need most, at this point, is the experience that comes with more growing seasons.

“The cool thing,” says Beidler, “is that our collective knowledge is getting better with every growing season. We are making progress as a whole.”

This is why research is playing a key role in the grains and oilseed renaissance. Farmers are getting to know different varieties that are typically grown in the Midwest and Washington state, to see how they might fare in Vermont. Darby is working with Lazor to cross historic wheat varieties from the “breadbasket days” with more modern ones, in order to develop new strains that will thrive in our region’s soils and with our growing conditions and weather patterns—even as they change with global warming.

Roger Rainville of Borderview Farm in Alburg is hosting 400 to 500 test plots of a diversity of grains, each measuring 5 by 50 feet. Despite its northernmost location, Borderview has one of the longest growing seasons in the state, due to the buffering effect of Lake Champlain and minimal elevation.

“Roger is phenomenal,” Darby says. “He does a tremendous amount of work managing the research plots each year.”

Five years ago, a group of 25 growers met to discuss grain–growing in Vermont. The focus was “mostly on animal feed because the cost of organic feed” had just gone up significantly, Darby recalls. A common question was whether there would be enough to feed Vermont’s organic dairies—or rather, how to meet that need.

But in 2008, the group that is now known as the Northern Grain Growers Association (NGGA) attracted more than 80 people—more than could fit in the room—to its annual conference. The group’s profile had expanded, too. In addition to farmers and growers, attendees included homesteaders, localvores, bakery owners, grain processors, and agricultural educators and professionals from New England, New York, and Quebec. This year, the March conference will be held at Vermont Technical College, making the conference accessible to VTC students as well as the growing audience.

Both Lazor and Beidler are organic dairy farmers, and they have discovered that raising grains and milking cows is a good combination. Some crops are grown for feed, but as Beidler explains good–naturedly, when the growing season for crops meant for human consumption doesn’t turn out as expected, “the cows can eat my mistakes.”

....

As for oilseeds, they, too, can be used for multiple purposes. The straw residue from the field harvest can be used for bedding in the barn. Oilseed cake—the solids that remain after pressing an oilseed crop such as sunflowers or camelina for oil—makes good feed for livestock in the winter months. And oilseeds can also power our vehicles.

Two farmers are at the forefront of on–farm biofuel processing. Jack Williamson of State Line Farm in Shaftsbury and Rainville of Borderview are working with a coalition of groups, including Darby’s office, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, and others to develop what Darby describes as “Farm Fresh Fuel.” ?The coalition is seeking to balance the simultaneous, though sometimes conflicting, need for both fuel and food production.

Recently, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund completed a feasibility study on the idea of a mobile processing unit for biofuel oilseed crops. The initial conclusions were positive, although implementation will depend on many factors, including funding.

All of this biofuels research is in the early stages but is growing rapidly. “It is cutting edge,” Darby says. “Vermont will be one of the first states that will have on–farm biofuels processing when it is up and running.”

....

With such a proliferation of research and interest, what’s next for Vermont’s grain and oilseed growers, processors, and everyone who benefits from their work?

The challenge before us, as we enter more fully into the post–peak oil era, is to reconfigure the map of what is grown where. We—home gardeners, homesteaders, farmers, bakers, food processors, and consumers—are being invited to find new ways to affordably and reliably grow, harvest, and deliver basic staple crops.

One thing that is not a challenge, however, is selling local grains and oils to Vermonters. Strong sales at farmers’ markets, through CSAs, at local co–ops, and to local bakers means that locally grown grains and oils are finding an eager—and promising—market.

Illustration of grist mill ,City Mills Company, from the collection of the Historic American Engineering Record (Library of Congress)

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

Connect

Sign up for quarterly notifications and issue highlights.
Please wait