Last Wednesday, we had a farmer-education event* all about growing grains that are good enough quality for milling into flour for human food. This is the holy grail of grain-growing, and an important topic for newer grain growers. Elizabeth Dyck from OGRIN (an excellent, thorough teacher) joined farmer Ashley Loehr at her Sparrowbush Farm on a clear, sunny day in Hudson, NY. Our own Robert Perry, Grain and Field Crops Coordinator, joined in the processing discussion, showing the components of our mobile grain processing unit that small-scale growers can use. (The unit is currently parked in the Hudson Valley to support the network of small-scale grain growers involved in our Value-Added Grains Project).
Over 25 farmers (and a few bakers and extension agents) attended to learn about the impacts on quality that various factors can have. We learned about wheat and grain varieties, crop management, weather, disease as they relate to the milling quality. For instance, a weedy field means that grains are harder to harvest and mill because the weeds clog the equipment, or weed seeds “contaminate” the pure grain. Planting dates, weather, cover-cropping practices and mechanical tillage all impact weed pressure–so, a farmer can be doing plenty of the right things and still find themselves with a weedy wheat field.
Grains are scored for quality by a processing facility, but a grower will have a sense of the grain’s final destination (human food/milling, distilling, animal feed) based on:
- The amount of weed pressure observed in the field: weeds can be separated out, but through extra processing and care;
- The weather: warm, moist weather during grain flowering can lead to diseases like Wheat Scab (Fusarium graminaearum) which at a certain level causes the grain to be considered unfit for human consumption.
- The weather, again: humidity and wet weather leads to other diseases which reduce a crop’s eventual development into full, heavy grains. So the amount that the farmer harvests and sells is less than they’d anticipate in a disease-free situation.
Harvest and post-harvest conditions: Even out of the field, a farmer needs to ensure that the grain stay (or become) dry to at most 12% moisture. There are machines and methods for this, and it’s so important! A perfect crop can be ruined for human consumption if left too moist during storage.
So, a grain farmer takes those things into consideration. An organic grain farmer can’t rely on the arsenal of chemicals that a non-organic farmer would use for weed pressure and disease control, so their best practices include crop rotation, using very clean (weed-free, disease-free) seed from reputable sources, and a lot of good timing for everything from planting (to let the crops establish during the right time of year) to harvest (when the grain is ripe and the weather is dry).
A harvested batch of grain has its berries separated from the stalks, and then sent to be processed. Grains are tested for:
- Moisture content: for storage quality and as a preliminary measurement of quality
- Test weight: a high weight-to-volume ratio indicates high quality and full grain development
- Protein content: while not the only factor a baker needs to know, protein content largely dictates what type of flour–pastry, all-purpose, “bread”–a flour is considered. Milled grains are often blended for a consistent protein content under a brand or label)
- “Falling weight”: important measurement of how much pre-sprouting activity has happened (and therefore how much enzymatic activity has happened prior to processing). Too much enzyme activity means that the grain will create a sticky dough, or in the case of malted grains, won’t germinate at a good rate to create the desired result.
- Vomitoxin: amount of a particular contaminant; vomitoxin causes sickness, so the threshold for it is very low; disease and storage conditions affect this level. NOTE: no grain is sold for human consumption if it exceeds the threshold; it may be re-purposed for animal feed or distilling.
Then we ate bread and had a discussion about the benefit of direct marketing. For a small-scale grower, the ability to add value to the grain by milling it, working with a baker and offering bread to customers, or another arrangement, means that the effort is financially rewarded. That’s why small-scale processing infrastructure is so key–growers need to be able to test and mill their grain locally and control what happens to their grain. From the perspective of a baker, locally farmed grains offer the chance to elevate the flavor of baked goods, and developing a relationship with grain farmers might even result in custom-grown varieties. Antoine Guerlain was the day’s resident baker (he bakes loaves with local wheat for Camphill Community–Copake) and he did an excellent job advocating for working with grains and flours because of their interesting “personalities.” He had baked a variety of loaves, using a consistent formula (except for the 100% rye breads) to showcase the qualities that can be coaxed from different grains. There were even differences between two strains of ancient wheat–Arapaho and Banatka.
Wheat Quality Indicators Fact Sheet by Elizabeth Dyck
Bread Baking Classes at Wide Awake Bakery (Trumansburg, NY): Instructors provide a day of instruction, focusing on understanding the variability and interesting qualities of local, freshly-ground grains
*Our in-field farmer education events are called Field Days. Check out all the NOFA-NY Field Days listings