Who Will This Feed?
Local Grain and Oil Production in Vermont
Written onMarch 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)