Going Against the Grain
The term ‘going against the grain’ was originally used in the context of woodworking. It meant hitting snags or splinters in the piece of wood, preventing a smooth finish and surface. The term was even used in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in 1607.
Preoccupied with what you rather must do / Than what you should, made you against the grain (Going Against the Grain - Idiom, Origin & Meaning (grammarist.com)
Today, the term is used in everyday conversation to mean acting against what is commonly done or preferred. Take for example, starting the first mutual bank in over 50 years focused on regional and sustainable agriculture and food ecosystem!
When we started this journey of collaborating with the regional grain economy, it excited us to support the entire grain chain: growers, millers, maltsters, bakeries, breweries, even upcycled crackers. We got to taste new ingredients like cornmeal, whole wheat, oats, barley, rye, and buckwheat as they came to our tables. It’s inspiring to watch a kernel of grain grown locally move across this value chain of incredibly connected, resilient, and passionate owners and operators. Even more so, it emphasized to us the power of interconnected communities, the fragility of supply chains confronting climate change, and the importance of consumer demand in regional markets. Customers popping into LMNOP Bakery every day get an amazing loaf of sourdough while sending the message that growers in the Fingers Lakes are wanted and needed. It also became quite fun to recognize familiar faces at grain events, learn about what buckwheat looks and tastes like, and notice (and buy!) the bags of Maine Grains or Farmer Ground Flour available at local grocery stores. But most exciting is that after the last few months, we now count every one of these exciting brands as Partner Businesses and hope you will feel kinship with them when you see their products on the shelf:
- Farmer Ground Flour and River Valley Community Grains are shaping the critical middle infrastructure space by milling locally grown grains into high quality flours for retail and wholesale. There once were 24,000 mills spread out across the US, and now there are 166; the resurgence of mills provides essential processing capacity and a place to create value-add products for market.
- Blue Ox Malthouse produces regionally sourced malt for local Maine craft breweries and is notably one of the few malthouses in the nation that does so through a process called floor malting.
- LMNOP Bakery, one of our favorite bakeries in the Hudson Valley, not only creates unparalleled croissants and loaves of fresh bread, but also blossomed into a space for community gathering that previously didn’t exist in historic downtown Katonah. They have an open bakery so anyone (recently – even an entire class of kindergarteners!) can walk upstairs and learn about their process.
- New England Natural Bakers makes some of the tastiest granola you’ll find (flavors like Cape Cod Cranberry or Organic Cinnamon Spice Everything Nice) and is committed to addressing food waste by turning it into renewable energy and organic fertilizer through an anerobic digestor.
- Sfoglini Pasta uses local grains like Hard Red Wheat, Emmer and Einkorn to create incredibly fun pasta shapes. To quote a farm stand owner who stocked Sfoglini Pasta, “the pasta just holds the sauce unlike any pasta I’ve ever had!”
- Wildgrain, an at-home delivery company, brings sourdoughs, artisanal pastries, and fresh pasta right to the busy, conscious consumer’s door. You can even get croissants for life (while the offer lasts!)
- Stone and Skillet, family owned and operated, produces quite possibly the tastiest English muffins made in Boston. Fun-fact, these English muffins aren’t even placed in an oven, instead cooked and fried on flat top griddles to create their signature crisp outer layer.
- Masienda is revitalizing the corn tortilla by sourcing from smallholder farmers and using nutrient rich dough (“masa” is the Spanish word for dough) produced from a stone-ground process. And before Masienda came to form, there was one major masa harina monopoly over the global masa market.
But, like anything, we picked up new and challenging insights along the way too. Much like other agriculture and food sectors, creating a more resilient and thriving regional grain economy is difficult in the face of our current easy, cheap, and commodified food system. The Corn Belt of the Midwest isn’t the easiest competitor to take down. For local, smaller-scale growers and processors, the equipment needed to clean, dry, and store grain is expensive and large. The volatile climate is a constant threat to grains, which can be very temperamental without predictable rainfall and temperatures. Bakeries and breweries, in mass, are cautious to test out regional grains, concerned that experimentation may tamper with their existing recipes. More generally, business owners and operators who live in rural parts of our region suffer from shrinking real estate valuations and climbing construction costs.
Despite all the challenges, these growers, millers, maltsters, bakers, breweries, owners, and operators persist; but not because it is a smooth path to quick profit and high growth. They each fight for their own set of reasons. For some, it’s the taste and nutritional value that comes with beer or a loaf of bread made with local grains. For others, it’s the knowing that regionally and sustainably grown ingredients are nourishing and replenishing our lands and soil. Others keep the fight because they’ve felt the benefits of mutual support firsthand when things got hard during the pandemic. Our small but mighty regional grain economy is connected in a thousand ways that we cannot see, but as one large movement, its strength is something we can feel.
The photos in this post come from the annual University of Vermont Crop Field Days event held in Alburgh VT in July. The Walden Mutual team joined and despite downpouring rain in the morning, the skies cleared up and enthusiasm followed as Heather Darby and her team presented a handful of test plots (including soybeans, oats, rye, corn,and much more) to the audience of farmers, students, and farm service providers.