Grower Story: Weatherbury Farm Opportunities with Organic Grains

 Passages | September/October 2015

As reported by Nigel Tudor, in Passages (the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture)  September/October 2015:

” 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.

My 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.

In addition 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.

Weatherbury 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.

There are some caveats you should consider before beginning your career as an organic grain grower:

First, if 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 with rest.

Before you 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 the price.

Before you 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.

The most 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.

You can 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. .

Attend as 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.

Always 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 on board.

Happy growing!

If you would like to learn more about organic grain production, here is a suggested introductory reading list:

The Organic 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”