Our Deep Dive into Regional Grains
Grain has been grown in New England and New York for the past four hundred years. In fact, grain growing in the Northeast began even earlier in about AD 1000, when hunter-gatherers began to supplement their food needs with corn, beans, and squash (Jack Lazor, The Organic Grain Grower). Yet, the late 1700s and early 1800s shined in production when wheat continued as the primary grain crop in every region of Northern New England (Lazor). Other grain crops such as barley, oats, rye, corn, soybeans, dry beans, and buckwheat also thrived, providing a substantial and nutritious part of family and community diets.
The rise of the regional grain economy in the Northeast was stymied due to westward expansion - especially the development of the Erie Canal in 1825.
The opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825, completed the link between the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, establishing new trade routes and creating a milling hub around Rochester, NY – soon to be known as the Flour City. Railroads soon followed, which coincided nicely with our nation’s longing for cheaper and less crowded farmland. And wheat went along for the ride. This was nothing sinister, just inevitable. But something significant happened here that served as the harbinger of time ahead: for the first time in America, wheat started to be grown far away from where it was consumed. (Dan Barber, The Third Plate)
Grown in the Midwest and shipped East became the new norm. Today, wheat ranks third among U.S. field crops in planted acreage, production, and gross farm receipts behind corn and soybeans. This results in 1.65 billion bushels of winter, durum, and other spring wheat from a harvested area of 35.5 million acres - dominated by large industrial farms and milling centers in the Midwest.
However, over the last few decades there has been a resurgence of regional grains. Regionally grown, processed, distributed, and sold grains are coming back thanks to the incredible efforts of individuals like Andrea Stanley at Valley Malt, Amber Lambke at Maine Grains, Heather Darby at University of Vermont Extension, June Russell at Glynwood, Andrew Heyn at New American Stone Mill, Thor Oechsner at Oechsner Farms and so many more. While not as dominant as 200 years ago, today’s regional grain economy is gaining consumer awareness due to the increased focus on taste, nutritional value, environmental impact, and overall support for local communities.
More than just wheat
When many folks think “regional grains” they likely think of wheat first. But there are many different types of staple items that are categorized as grains: oats, corn, rye, spelt, barley, buckwheat, soybeans, and dry beans. Through the efforts of many (many) people – from farmers to millers, bakers, brewers, and all of the logistical partners in between, these tiny kernels of grain and seed are turned into the bread, tortillas, cereals, granola, pasta, cookies, crackers, etc. that we consume daily. Did I mention the beer and whiskey that we drink too? Not a day goes by that many of us do not consume grains.
We’ve been working with a handful of grain businesses who are already playing a key role in the New England and New York grain revival. Greg Russo of Farmer Ground Flour (Trumansburg, NY) teamed up with Thor Oechsner to build a milling site where baking flour could be produced from local, organic grains. Sfoglini Pasta (Coxsackie NY) uses Greg’s products to make delicious pastas with organic rye, emmer, einkorn, and spelt flours. Anne Mayhew of LMNOP Bakery (Katonah, NY) found support from local millers as she started her business in 2017. Now she serves as an advisor to the Northeast Grainshed Alliance.
Associations and networks (including Northeast Grainshed Alliance, Maine Grain Alliance, Northern Grain Growers, and several state brewers' associations) have been tirelessly working towards building a regional grainshed – where the whole industry can support itself locally.
Excited to join our journey in supporting grain farms and businesses? There are a handful of ways you can engage, support, and learn too! We will be attending Maine Grain’s Kneading Conference up in Skowhegen Maine this July which is truly an event you don’t want to miss if you are a baking enthusiast. Follow along your state’s craft beer associations, particularly the summer festivals of NH Brewers Association and Vermont Brewers Association. If you’re a NH local, check out Orchard Hill Breadwork’s Tuesday night wood-fired community pizza events. Lastly, take a read through the book The Organic Grain Grower by Jack Lazor, a legend in our regional grain economy.
Photos courtesy of Chloe Wingerter