Finding Your Niche

PCO Matters | Fall 2013

As reported by Matthew Kelterborn in PCO Matters (The newsletter of Pennsylvania Certified Organic), Fall 2014 edition:

” Pic 2:  Nigel Tudor stands next to a plot of Einkorn aptly named “Nigel”. He bought the seed from a grocery store in Germany, and he has saved some each year from plantings on his farm. ” (Ed. note:  This picture can be seen on our Facebook page’s September 2 2013 posting)

‘While most of the grain production in the U.S. is dominated by modern wheat varieties grown in pesticide and herbicide intensive production systems, there has also been a resurgence of interest in local, organically grown, heritage varieties of grains. These include einkorn, emmer, and spelt, which are considered “ancient wheats”, and have their own unique tastes and characteristics. Growing, processing, and marketing these specialty grains was the subject of the field day at Penn State’s Russell Larson Research & Education Center on June 25th. The event was presented in partnership with Penn State Extension, Organic Growers Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN), and PASA. Additionally, PCO-certified farmers Joel Steigman (Small Valley Milling) and Nigel Tudor (Weatherbury Farm) shared their expertise from growing these grains commercially. The large number of people in attendance illustrated that the growing demand for local, sustainably grown food encompasses grain production as well.

Choosing the right variety

Attendees were led through a field of test plots growing at the research center this year. As each person passed by the 6 x 20 space dedicated to each variety, they were able to take a much closer look and observe how differently these grains grow and what characteristics each variety presented. Greg Roth, PSU Extension, described in detail what they have learned about each variety so far. He has been working with heritage grains for three years and feels that they could be, “very value-added”, in that some varieties are excellent for baking and have good agronomic qualities. He prefers winter grains, saying that they give out better yields comparatively. These are typically planted in October and benefit greatly from following a plowed sod crop, such as clover. The sod crop retains or builds nutrients and also provides weed control, which are both very important considerations when growing organic grains. At the research center, they top-dressed 200lbs of pelletized poultry manure per acre in February, which is about 50-60 lbs of actual Nitrogen, but the speakers recognize that many farmers growing grain have access to on-farm manure from their livestock operations, which would be preferable to purchasing off-farm manure. Although they did not interseed any legumes into the test plots, they highly recommended it. Elizabeth Dyck, OGRIN, emphasized that, “small grains and legumes are made for each other. It’s a marriage made in heaven”.

Often, farmers growing these specialty organic grains are marketing them through alternative channels. For example, Nigel processes some of his into pasta to sell as a value-added product. Elizabeth and Greg both discussed how there is a rising demand for these grains among chefs, brewers, distillers, and other processors. In determining which varieties to grow on the farm, the producer should consider what qualities the purchaser desires.  For example, a pastry chef might be looking for a variety with a low protein content, while a distiller/brewer might be looking for a specific taste/flavor profile. Communicating with the final buyer and considering their input is very important as the farmer considers which heritage varieties to grow.

To be a “heritage grain” means that they had to have been developed before WWII. Although most of these heritage grains yield lower than modern wheat varieties, there are some that actually yield as well, if not better than, modern varieties. Heritage wheats also have a better “tillering capacity”, meaning that they are able to send up multiple grain heads. Elizabeth doesn’t preach that heritage varieties are always better than the modern varieties, but she does recognize some of the real winners. “Yorkstar” is a particularly high yielding soft white winter wheat variety that blew the modern wheats away. It is short, with lodging resistance, and has resistance to mildew and leaf rust.  “Gold Coin” is one of the oldest varieties of soft white winter wheat (19th century) that she says to look out for as heritage grains grow in popularity. It is described as midseason maturity, short to medium tall, and has a strong stem. The researchers were also trialing some of the less-commonly known modern wheat varieties. Warthog, a Canadian modern wheat with less than 12% protein, is “…one you can make good money on”, according to Elizabeth. Tests by bakers have shown this to be highly rated in terms of workability and flavor.

Winter wheat usually yields more (30-40%) because it doesn’t experience any of the sweltering hot days that are common when growing spring wheat. Also, there are fewer issues with soil crusting compared to spring wheat. Despite these challenges, the researchers explained the importance of alternating between spring and winter varieties to combat weed pressure and prevent the recurrence of pests. Good crop rotation practices, even with varieties of the same species, should be implemented frequently to break the cyclical nature of pests and weeds. To have a better yield from spring wheat, Greg suggested a higher seeding rate. The research plots at Penn State had seeding rates of 60, 90, 120, and 150 lbs per acre, and he prefers the higher seeding rates. The researchers recommended that farmers consider growing emmer as a spring crop because it is a tough crop that can take a lot of stress. “When wheat fails, Emmer will come through”, says Elizabeth. Its yield is typically 30-50% less than wheat, but it has a longer planting window in the spring.  It is a very nutritious grain and many chefs prefer the taste, but it is not a good grain for leavened bread because it lets out too much air. Two popular emmer varieties are “Lucille” and “North Dakota Common”. Both are high yielding and have performed well in Pennsylvania. North Dakota farmers have grown “North Dakota Common” for over 100 years.

The spelt test plots were noticeably different compared to the tall stands of wheat. Spelt is typically much shorter than wheat, but it does better on soils that are low in nitrogen. It has been grown on a number of organic farms in the Northeast for the last 15 years, and its market potential continues to grow. Some of the spelt varieties noted at the tour were Sungold, Maverick, and Bavaria. Joel particularly likes Maverick because it is a dehulled variety. He said he had also tried growing Bavaria, but didn’t have much success once it got hot. Farmers in New York might have more success growing this variety with their cooler temperatures.

Einkorn has not been as commercially grown as the above-mentioned grains so there is still much to learn about growing this in Mid-Atlantic climates. It is recognized among the forms of wheat that were first cultivated by humans 10,000 years ago. Nigel was able to purchase einkorn seed at a grocery store in Germany a few years ago, and has been able to continue saving the seed each year from his small plot. He plants it in six-inch rows 2-3 inches apart. It tends to have shorter and smaller heads, comparatively, but some varieties are highly nutritious and contain high amounts of lutein, which is known to reduce susceptibility to some aging disease like cataracts.

One point to consider is that organic farmers should remember that anytime straw or hay is cut and taken off farm, the nutrients that helped the plant to grow are removed from the farm as well. Soils can become deficient in potassium if straw is not incorporated back to the soil. Joel noted that he had to buy in potassium for this reason. Regular soil testing is useful so that farmers know if a nutrient deficiency is developing.

Finding the right equipment

Growing these grains is one thing, but grain production typically requires more mechanization than a diversified vegetable operation might need. Several of the speakers and farmers in attendance strongly recommended the All-Crop Harvester manufactured by Allis Chalmers when starting out small with grain production. This is pulled by a tractor and powered by either the tractor PTO or a mounted stationary engine. There were several models that came out during its 1935-1969 manufacturing period, but the easiest to find is the All-Crop 60/60A. It typically is only able to combine about ½ acre per hour, and the machine doesn’t like steep slopes, but some models can be found for a real bargain. Joel Steigman said that Lancaster Farming is a great source for finding a bargain on a combine like this.

After harvesting, there are several other processes needed before the grain can be sold. Elizabeth strongly recommended having a system in place for processing prior to planting so that there is no delay from harvest to final sale. The seed must be cleaned to remove weed seeds, stones, stems, and other foreign materials from the mix. Fanning mills, spiral cleaners, and gravity tables each use a different method to clean the seed, and some are better at certain types of cleaning than others. If weed matter is not removed properly, then the risk of grain spoilage, increase in vomitoxin content, or development of off-flavors is greatly increased. Depending on the type of crop, there may also be a need for dehulling equipment. Oats, spelt, emmer, and einkorn typically have hulls that need to be removed before further processing. If flour is the final product to be sold, then a mill is required as well. Purchasing this equipment may seem daunting, but Nigel and Joel discussed how they have been able to either purchase used equipment or fabricate their own. When starting out small, it does not make sense to purchase large capacity equipment. It is less expensive and easier to maintain small-scale equipment. As business grows and familiarity with the equipment grows with it, purchasing larger equipment is less intimidating.

For more information on growing heritage grains, the Organic Growers Research and Information-Sharing Network is a great resource. The project team is looking for farmers to volunteer to trial some of these heritage grains on their farm. Also, there is a seed-buying club through OGRIN that allows farmers to purchase some of these seeds at a discount. Contact Elizabeth Dyck at OGRIN at 607-895-6913 or email at ”