by Bob Nuner
As locavore and sustainable agriculture movements continue to spread, grain- and commodity-growing have re-established themselves in the Northeast. The Northern Grain Growers Association (NGGA), with strong support from the University of Vermont Extension Service’s St. Albans-based Crops and Soils Group, is boosting efforts to re-establish grain and oilseed production in Vermont.
The Green Mountain State supplied wheat to a much smaller United States in the early 1800s, before the nation’s westward expansion and railroad development—and, according to NGGA’s website, before Vermont soils became “exhausted.”
Sustainable, local production of commodities interests more people than just bakers. Vermont’s dairy industry also benefits by re-introducing grain growing. The argument for dairy farmers: If they’re buying grain from western regions for feed, it may make sense at some point to cut transportation costs and grow those grains themselves. Some Vermont farmers already grow soybeans in rotation with corn and other crops, and some are experimenting with other things, too. At the extension service’s Alburg experiment farm, small test plots of canola, sunflower, triticale, wheat, rye, barley, hops, corn, and flax abound. Flax has generated particular interest, since experiments conducted outside of Vermont have found that its use as feed reduces a cow’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas.
The upshot of all this experimentation and innovative thinking? Randolph farmer Brent Biedler is growing millet and oats for his cattle, and wheat and spelt for human consumption. Cabot’s Rhapsody Natural Foods is growing rice. Its website offers several rice-derived foods, including rice milk, tempeh, rice bran and miso.
Since Vermont’s climate is damper than the American West’s, experts have urged NGGA farmers to look to Europe, not the West, for examples of successful production techniques. For grain-growers in the Northeast, the challenges abound. Our growing seasons are shorter than in the South, fields are smaller (requiring smaller, hard-to-find, often used equipment) and our high humidity means harvesting and drying processes differ from those in the West. A couple of years ago, a contingent of NGGA members visited bread wheat producers in Denmark—-not the Dakotas—to study their techniques.
For homesteaders, gardeners, and armchair farmers, The Organic Grain Grower, a recent book from Jack Lazor, co-founder of Westfield’s Butterworks Farm, furnishes excellent information on the topic. Released last year by Vermont publisher Chelsea Green, Lazor’s compilation of reflections on growing commodities in the Northeast is filled with accessible, friendly advice for individuals with a hankering to grow grains at whatever scale they feel brave enough to try.