Greg Russo, Farmer Ground Flour
“The story I want to tell is that Farmer Ground Flour got all of our farmers to do regenerative.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., Greg Russo remembers wishing he grew up in the country. “I [thought that] people who grew up on farms had some deep generational wisdom.” Now, twelve years into growing Farmer Ground Flour, he has plenty of that wisdom of his own. “People have an innate connection to the land,” he explains – regardless of if they grow up in the city, suburbs, or country. For Greg, grain farming had a scale and aesthetic that resonated. He was intrigued by the grain economy, the “big machinery” inherent to handling the crops, and the large-scale fieldwork that contrasted with the smaller vegetable farms he had experienced before. Though he admits the grain industry lacks the “fun, sexy marketing” often seen in other food domains.
As an undergrad at Cornell, Greg got an assignment to make an enterprise budget for a local farm. As part of his class, he linked up with Thor Oechsner, a grain farmer who was already “locally famous for being a charismatic guy.” As Greg recalls, they “did a research project on buying a grain dehuller” – a machine that peels the tough outer hulls from grains and is integral in the milling process. In remembering the project, he jokes that analysis like that is, “kind of what I do every day now.”
Greg began working with Thor with plans to become a grain farmer, but after many years of managing his own farm, Thor was already thinking about value-added processing - milling his crops into flour. “Wheat is already part of the grain economy here in upstate New York,” shares Greg. “We’re spoiled here with strong and high-quality gluten.” As he explains, in the time of the colonies upstate New York “was the breadbasket” and that legacy has remained relevant. Thus, with the ambition and resources at hand, Farmer Ground Flour was established.
It began simply. Greg would work half at the farm and half at the mill, though “very quickly [the mill] became a full-time job.” They gradually put up grain bins and spent plenty of time bootstrapping. “Milling is like that mouse trap board game,” jokes Greg – a Rube Goldberg type of chain reaction of “tall buildings where you use gravity to move grain from one place to the next.” Back then the question would be, “you can buy this thirty-thousand dollar machine…or you can build it.” “MacGyvering it was the right thing at the right time” though after years of growth they are not strangers to major milling suppliers.
Meanwhile Thor became a facilitator, contracting with other organic grain farmers. Today they work with 8-12 other farms. As Greg explains, grain farming works into a regular crop rotation cycle on local farms of – for example– “wheat, corn, soybeans, clover, and wheat again.” These schedules of regular change are common and help spread risk by quelling disease, insects, and meeting the fertility needs of the soil.
A MISSION TO EVOLVE GRAIN CULTURE
Today, Farmer Ground Flour uses a Vermont granite stone to mill “high extraction flour” – a flour that retains the nutritious fats and oils of the original organic crops. But as Greg says, “the story I want to tell is that Farmer Ground Flour got all of our farmers to do regenerative.” As he puts it, regenerative practices are a “necessary step to create a standard that evolves beyond organic.”
As a regional processor, Farmer Ground Flour is in an interesting position to affect change in the supply chain. They work directly with farms and provide a valuable avenue for crops in an economy that still largely grows grain for cattle. Yet for farms that are already doing regenerative work, the additional paperwork can seem like an unnecessary burden.
On the other hand, Farmer Ground Flour has a growing connection with individual bakers. The home-baking boom of the pandemic fueled demand for their retail-sized 2lb bags and at times pushed the limits of what they could produce. Greg reflects that they are “embracing the opportunity to have that direct link with consumers.”
After choosing Walden Mutual as their sustainable banking partner, Farmer Ground Flour will build out their production capacity and continue their mission to influence the local ecosystem. Greg explains that grain farming has big potential as a carbon sink, so there’s “another layer of urgency” to act. He affirms, “I’d like this to become our identity as a business.”
Visit farmergroundflour.com to find them in a Whole Foods or local store near you!
Photos courtesy of Farmer Ground Flour