Organic farmers may find the
recent rise of small artisan distilleries offers them a new way to diversify.
At Weatherbury Farm, we planted our first grains in 2008 not with thoughts of
selling to distilleries but because we needed straw to bed the barn in the
winter for our grass-fed animals. As we had recently purchased a table top
flour mill, we decided to grow food grade grains organically.
relationship with Wigle Whiskey started when Mark Meyer was researching the
supply of regionally produced organic grain and called me to find out what type
of grains I was growing. Mark and his son Eric came to an OGRIN/PASA field day
on small grains that was held at Weatherbury Farm. This was a great opportunity
for them to learn more about the production of grain. Mark and I have an
on-going discussion about the grains I will be able to provide Wigle.
Currently, I sell them hard wheat, soft wheat, rye and corn.
to Wigle, I am supplying buckwheat to one distillery for whiskey and a small
amount of corn, rye and wheat to another start–up for “shine.” I do receive
inquiries monthly or so from other start up distilleries, so there is still room
for more organic grain growers. In addition to word of mouth, the best way for
a distillery to find you is via your website and/or your Facebook page. You can
also do research on line and find distilleries in your area.
Transportation can be a concern. The two small distilleries, which I provide
grains to, come to the farm to pick up the grains. Wigle, on the other hand,
wants their grain delivered. This can be a scheduling issue depending on their
warehouse space. As we don’t have the capability to deliver, I found a local
service to deliver the grains. All of our prices are FOB our farm. Who bears
the cost of transportation is an important discussion to have up front with the
distillery or you may find that transportation costs are cutting significantly
into your profits.
Farm is an integrated farm raising grass fed beef and lamb, using the manure to
fertilize the crop grounds, the straw from the grains for bedding and selling
the grains. Three quarters of our acreage is in perennial grass and legumes that
are used for pasture or hay. I think that this is the best possible scenario, as
our requirements for outside inputs are kept to a minimum. Our grains are grown
on a 2 to 3 year rotation, before going back into hay. We plow and harrow the
ground before planting our first grain crop and then the following spring, we
frost seed clover into the fields. During the rotation we sometimes use a
rototiller to prepare a seedbed instead of the moldboard plow.
some caveats you should consider before beginning your career as an organic
you are not already growing grains, you will need a whole new (well probably
used) set of equipment. To plant, a plow, harrow and drill. For corn, you will
also need a planter, rotary hoe and cultivator. To harvest, a combine. To test
the moisture of the grain, a moisture tester. To transport grain from the field
and store it, a gravity wagon. To dry down slightly moist grain, a screw in
aerator. To move grain, an auger. To clean, a seed cleaner. To weigh the grain
for sale, a certifiable trade scale. All of this equipment can be purchased
used, but be prepared to work on it to get it field ready and even then, there
will be breakdowns at the most inconvenient times.
As a grain
grower you must enjoy working on machinery and have a modicum of mechanical
prowess. When you buy used machinery you will most likely have to work on it to
make it operational and reliable. Be forewarned that an old combine is better at
breaking down at the most inopportune times than harvesting grain. If you are
doing the proper maintenance on your combine you will spend more time working on
it than using it. A good practice is to look over the machine when you are
finished with it to see if there is anything that should be fixed/ adjusted
before the next use. It is better to be proactive than reactive.
Additionally, when I’m finished using each machine for the season, I make a note
in a dedicated notebook of everything that should be fixed before the next
season. Contrary to popular belief, your machines’ problems will not get better
even start growing grains, contact the other organic growers in your area and
see where opportunities lie. Potential markets for organic grain are malt
houses, distilleries, breweries, flour mills and feed mills. It will not be
beneficial to anyone if you flood the market with a certain grain and drive down
plant a crop, talk to several potential buyers so that you have more than one
avenue to sell your grain. Also, keep in mind that you will only receive a
premium price if the quality of your grain is good and demand exceeds supply. If
you are successful the first year don’t expand your operation exponentially.
Grow your production with your markets.
If you are
planning on selling grains on a field scale, don’t even think that you can do it
by hand. I have several small plots of grains that I am trialing/bulking seed
and the time to harvest and thresh them boggles my mind.
If you are
not already certified organic, do so. Yes there is paperwork – but that
paperwork also provides a good reference in future years about your equipment
settings, yields, etc. As to the cost, 75% up to $750 is currently reimbursable
through the PDA organic cost-share program. Many small distilleries start out
using local grains, but like Wigle they will probably turn to organic only
within a few years.
One of the
most important things you can do is to start small. You will no doubt make a
mistake or two along the way – better to make that mistake on 5 acres rather
than 20. Observe your fields as they are growing to see if there is anything
that you can improve on.
important caveat is that grains need to be harvested when they are ready. Winter
small grains such as wheat, rye or spelt are harvested in early July in my area.
The grains need to be harvested when they are physiologically mature which is
often before they are at storage moisture. You can use a screw in aerator if the
grain is below 16% moisture. If the moisture is higher, it is best to wait,
unless you have a grain drier and enough grain to fill it. Keep in mind that in
a rainy year your harvest window for a small grain crop may only be a couple of
days. If the grain gets rained on after it is physiologically mature, the
moisture can start to sprout the grain in the head, which will reduce the grain
from premium food grade grain to feed grade grain or worse. When the grain is
ready to harvest, the harvest takes precedent over everything else.
Do a soil
test several months before planting to see if your fields need lime or other
nutrients. You should always focus on building up your soil’s fertility. Too
many times have I seen farms selling hay or crops without any thought to
replenishing the nutrients that they are removing with the crop.
keep track of your grains’ quality by having a lab test done for vomitoxin,
protein and falling number. A fancy moisture tester or a test weight scale can
give you your grain’s test weight. .
many grain production field days as possible to broaden your knowledge. Keep in
mind that neighboring states might also have excellent field days or annual
conference tracts on grain production that you could attend.
focus on growing the highest quality crops possible. Remember you are one of
several people growing organic grain in Pennsylvania. As poor quality grain
marketed above its grade can dampen the market, the onus is on you to produce
high quality grain to grow the market and allow room for new producers to come
would like to learn more about organic grain production, here is a suggested
introductory reading list:
Grain Grower -- Jack Lazor
Small-Scale Grain Raising -- Gene Logsdon
The Biological Farmer -- Gary F Zimmer
Building Soils for Better Crops – Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es
Managing Cover Crops Profitably – Sustainable Agriculture Network|
Steel in the Field – Sustainable Agriculture Network"