The Nascent Grain Economy of New England

In New England, when they hear local food, most people will think of vegetables and maybe meat and berries. But what about staple crops?I’ve been part of the local food scene in New England for almost a decade new, but only recently have I really started digging in to local grain.This year, in partnership with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture and the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation, my partner and I are offering systems-level support to the local grain community in the Pioneer Valley in a project called Guilding Technical Assistance.

New England used to be a serious grain growing region (how else would Colonial Americans make their bread?), but that tradition fell out of favor in the late 1800s with Westward expansion, and practically disappeared after WWII.

There’s a lot to know about grain! In wheat, bakers are concerned with:

  • Falling number: enzyme activity level (which is necessary for the rising process)
  • Protein percentage: around 12% seems to be the preference for bread, but it can be hard to get levels up that high in New England)
  • Hard: referring to the nature of the germ. Bakers tend to prefer hard wheat for bread. Hard wheat grows better in drier climates, like the midwest. It was impossible to make white flower with hard wheat prior to the invention of the roller mill in 1890.
  • Soft: bakers tend to prefer this wheat for pastries. It grows more reliably in the wetter New England landscape.

In barley, maltster and brewers are concerned with:

  • Two-row or six-row: the latter have higher enzyme levels, and can therefore be used in brewing processes that use supplemental starches and sugar (such as when corn or sugar are added in industrial beer to cheapen production)
  • Field-germination rate: if too much of the barley has already started sprouting, it can’t be used in malting

Both groups care about:

  • DON levels: Deoxynivalenol, a vomitoxin (literally a toxin that causes vomiting) caused by Fusarium fungus, ofter caused by rains during the flowering stage. Levels need to be below 1 part per million to be safe for human consumption, and 2 PPM for animal feed
  • Spring or fall grains: determining when they’ll be planted, which influences forces such as weed pressure.

Industrial grain had been the rule from around WWII up until very recently. Why is this, when other aspects of the local food movement have taken off? I almost want to say that it’s easier to localize aspects of our food system that aren’t particularly of consequence. Vegetables are nice, but they only provide a small percentage of our calories and even our food dollars. And yet there’s more complexity to it than that. Part of the crux can be found in processing — wheat must be milled before it can be turned into bread, and barley must be malted before it can be turned into grain. Whereas vegetable growers can easily have a vertically-integrated business, the grain economy requires three district stages: farming, processing, and value-add. Due to this complexity, grain economies generally require an entire system — as opposed to just farmers direct selling to consumers.

Due to the complexity of these systems, it often makes more sense to look at grain on a regional as opposed to hyper-local level. For these reasons, the highest leverage points in the emergent grain economy are likely maltsters and millers — they hold the keys to the kingdom, and have the ability to enforce a set of ethics.

Even though we could be growing more grain in New England, why would we want to do so. The 2060 New England Food Vision calls for us to expand our farmland from 5% of our land base to 15%. Even so, this expansion would still only enable us to produce half of our food! Industrial grain growing practices in the midwest have massive negative environmental consequences. If our methods of food production damage our communities, why not outsource them elsewhere so at least it’s “not our problem?”

Some growers are working with more ecological production practices which don’t result in large amounts of erosion and soil-carbon loss. For example, Whitesfields Farm in Hardwick, MA is primarily a sheep farm, and ever four to six years works in a rotation of grain into their pasture. This leaves the fields in perennial ground-cover about 80% of the time.

But the real opportunities can only be found within the sphere of perennial staple crops. The foremost authority on this subject is Eric Toensmeier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution. Instead of wheat and barley, why aren’t we planting chestnuts and hazelnuts? Nutritionally, they’re higher value. They fix carbon in the soil instead of depleting it (a must in our time climate chaos). And they’re more resilient in the face of climactic volatility.

How can these worlds be reconciled? Lately I’ve been using the framework presented within the Wachowski film Cloud Atlas as a guide. In societies, there is a mainstream, and then there are a set of resistance movements. There is a dynamic relationship between these two forces. How can we apply these learnings to the situation in the grain movement? I think we need both local organic grain production, and local perennial staple crop production. It’s unrealistic to expect that our food culture to let go of wheat bread and barley beer. At the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect that we can continue to rely on annually crops for the vast majority of our food supply. For now, it’s a “both/and” pathway.