Grain coming into Focus: Long-standing New York traditional foods get their spotlight at last!

The OREI Value-Added Grains Project is a multi-year collaboration between NOFA-NY, Cornell University, Greenmarket, GrowNYC, OGRIN and others to grow the potential of primarily ancient and heritage cereal grains in New York and the Northeast.  Robert Perry, NOFA-NY’s Grain and Field Crop Coordinator, and June Russell, Manager of Farm Inspections
& Strategic Development for Greenmarket/GrowNYC, share their thoughts about grains and the upcoming Grain Expo happening during the NOFA-NY Winter Conference.

Robert says,

“Who ever heard of spelt, einkorn, emmer, or farro until recent years? This, to many, was like another new food group being grown.  However, I grew up enjoying whole grain flours living near the New Hope water-powered flour mill. Leland Weed had resurrected the old mill and overshot water wheel and spent a lifetime providing bagged whole grain flours that my mother would bake into homemade bread and rolls every week. The mill was open for tours and photo opportunities and was famous for their Buckwheat pancake mixes. My Dad had a dairy farm and did custom harvesting of small grains with his various combines. Eventually we had three combines that my brothers and I operated as well. Riding on the old AC all crop bagging combine, sliding down the chute, and playing in the oat bin was all part of growing up. The coop was close by and everyone worked as a community to support the Grange and the GLF cooperative along with various milk coops. So when legendary music of the late 60’s came along (“Traffic” and Steve Winwood’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”; Jethro Tull with “Same Old Man Workin at the Mill”)l I was already hooked on grains. Over the years various flour mills and bakeries have indulged in stone mills, whole grain bakeries, and legends have lived on, made with a labor of love, by farmers, millers, and bakers. After a silent yet persistent journey by this passionate community the grain movement has once again come into the local regional spotlight.Spelt berries

So when the idea of a Grain Expo came about for the NOFA-NY Winter Conference, coupled with selection of grain farmers
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens as our Farmers of the Year, it was my privilege to combine this into a celebration of the legends, the present, and the future of the incredible Northeast Value-Added Grains community.”

Same old man workin’ at the mill
Mill turns around of its own free will
Hand in the hopper and the other in a sack
Ladies step forward and the gents fall back.

June responds and reflects,

“I am afraid my first encounter with a mill or anything having to do with the production of grain was much less pastoral then Robert’s and most surely involved a rickety building with a lovely river view that either had been renovated into a Ye Olde Tavern of some sort or sold Christmas ornaments and fudge to tourists. Mills were relics of the past and flour was probably made by Keebler elves, as I saw it. Even as someone who had worked as a professional cook for 15 years, I had no idea how grain grew or flour was produced.

Early on in the quest to find flour for Greenmarket bakers, I saw Jack Lazor give a workshop on growing grain in Vermont at a NOFA-VT conference. Jack told the story of being a back-to-the-lander in the 1970s and how he grew wheat to make his own bread, but when he went to sell his crop he found that even the local Vermont co-op was buying grains and flour from the Midwest for half the price and he was laughed out the door. He said it was only now, decades later, that he was finally seeing interest in the market for his grain and he quipped, “I think we’re making progress”. (Editor’s note: Jack and his wife Anne will be presenting twice, and participating in a panel at the Grains Expo at the Conference)

This was circa 2007–a full thirty years or more after Jack and many of our elders were planting those first seeds. And it was true the market was finally catching up to the wisdom of farmers like Jack.  By 2008 the local foods movement kicked into full gear along with an explosion of artisanal food businesses guided by passionate and innovative entrepreneurs who embraced working with local ingredients with gusto.  We met essential allies and co-creators who were and are making incredible products for us to eat and drink from bread to beer, pasta to gin all using local grains …and supporting our farmers. By 2010, when Greenmarket implemented its 15% rule, the market was primed, the customer was ready and a few dozen farmers were willing to take the risk and begin the steep learning curve of growing, handling and marketing local grains.
Roggenvollkornbrot1The momentum is real, from Pennsylvania to the Finger Lakes, The Hudson Valley to Maine, mills have been built, or put back into production; malt houses and distilleries have come on line; and support for re-regionalizing our food system is coming from all directions including the state of New York, which has given us the farm brewery and farm distillery legislation that is helping to drive grain production and much needed research and development of infrastructure.

It has been an incredible time to be a part of this work; rewarding and profound in ways I never could have anticipated. Back in the early 90’s while working for Greenpeace, a good friend and mentor said to me, “there should be a still in every county”. I think he was getting at a message about sustainability on a fundamental level, about feeding the soil, the animals and our selves in ways that align with our values, bringing full circle the agriculture, the market and the food culture in a way that just might have a shot at sustaining us in the long run.

Now as another malting facility opens, another bakery incorporates local flour into production and another small batch distillery using local grains wins an award for excellence, I know what that mentor meant. And although I am pretty sure he would love the taste of the bourbons that our craft distillers are producing, he would be especially proud of what this community has accomplished, and the hope for the future that it signifies.

You can join in the fun and education on Friday January 23rd. 2015.  In the morning, there’s a Value-Added grain intensive with Klaas and Mary-Howell, followed by lunch with various grain-focused vendors, and a grain forum with legendary farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, researchers and you. Beyond the expo, there will be a total of 7 workshops for grain and field crop farmers, a homesteaders’ session on earthen oven cooking projects (Saturday afternoon), Klaas and Mary-Howell’s keynote address on Saturday afternoon, and an abundance of tasty treats made with New York’s grains.

Pre-registration ends on Friday, January 16th (walk-in registration starts at 7:00pm on Thursday, January 22nd).  Registration for Friday of the conference allows you entrance to the grain expo, plus all workshops and activities.  See www.nofanyconference.org for all the information!

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