ROCHESTER – The Hudson Valley’s grain-growing roots were on full display last Friday at Arrowood Farm Brewery in Rochester. The Rondout Valley Growers’ Association (RVGA) hosted an event there with an outdoors showing of Growing With The Grain, followed by a panel discussion afterwards on various aspects of the return of grain growing to the area.
The film, made by Jon Bowermaster of Ocean 8 Films, is a part of a series titled “Hope on the Hudson” that document the last five years of the “small grains” research project conducted by the Farm Hub on fields, just south of Hurley, that are visible from Route 209.
Our area has gone through several major shifts in agriculture since the Dutch arrived here in the early decades of the 17th century. For a century or more the farms carved out in the Hudson Valley produced grain — wheat, rye and barley. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1821 shattered that world as cheaper grain from Ohio flooded the markets. The Hudson Valley moved to dairy and vegetable farming, supplying New York City. The advance of the railroads in the 19th century accentuated the move to dairy, as milk could be moved quickly to big markets to the south. That world too has been impacted by developments in the Midwest and imports from the rest of the world.
The pattern of agriculture in the 21st century is moving in different directions simultaneously. While mainstream Midwestern wheat and dairy are now dominated by vast operations with twenty or thirty thousand acres in wheat, or thirty thousand cows placed 3,000 per gigantic barn, consumers at the upper end are paying for entirely different products: organic, small scale, local.
That is one aspect of the current revival of grain growing in our area, but not the only one. Many local farmers grow high-value vegetable crops. However, diseases and pests build up if the same crop is grown season after season. Farmers have to rest the land, perhaps by growing clover, to break the disease cycle. If they can grow a crop of grains at that point, they can earn some money and still free themselves from the insect pests and the diseases that can strike the vegetable crops.
The film featured elements of the Farm Hub’s work — growing ninety or more experimental plots of different kinds of wheat, barley, and rye. This was combined with a look at farmers like Don Lewis of Wild Hive Farm over near Clinton Corners in Dutchess County. Lewis, who began as a local honey farmer, has built an expanded facility for milling grains, and works with local farmers who grow diverse, unusual grains like einkorn.
The discovery of freshly ground, high-quality organic flours has opened eyes in the food world and among restaurateurs. Lewis has a loyal following in New York of chefs and bakers.
Following the film, a panel discussion ensued, during which a number of relevant points were made, and another very interesting development was unveiled.
Sarah Brannen, who has run the experimental grains program for the Farm Hub, began by noting that there had been no commercial grain growing in our area for ten generations. She added that farmers took a big risk with grain growing because grains are susceptible to rain damage. The experimental program was seeking grains that resisted disease but still tasted good.
Sharon Burns-Leader, a co-proprietor of Bread Alone bakeries, noted that removing the transportation carbon emissions from the food chain was a necessary step. She explained that at their Boiceville bakery, the original Bread Alone, they are now using 100 percent locally grown flour. At the Lake Katrine bakery, it is now at twenty-five percent, and she suggested they would be pressing that figure upwards.
John Kelder, of Kelder’s farm, where some barley is being grown for Arrowood’s beers, discussed the risks involved for the farmer and the relatively low income per acre to be obtained from grain crops. Kelder made the crucial point that farmers need to make a living, “We have to feed our families, and every crop carries some risk with it.”
Kelder’s farm is an example of what might be the future for grains in the Rondout Valley. Kelder’s grows its well-known berries and sweet corn, and now some barley. John Kelder mentioned rye, as well. These grain crops can supplement the higher-value crops and also break pest cycles.
Then came Dawn Hoyte, and Nfamara Badjie and Moustapha Diedhiou, from Ever-Growing Family Farm, a small farm that is growing rice right here in Ulster County. Rice? You could see the raised eyebrows all around in the RVGA audience. Nfamara and Moustapha, who come from Senegal and Gambia in West Africa, have grown rice at the village level since they were four years old. They know rice. They are rototilling a small acreage and doing everything else by hand because they have not yet been able to buy equipment. Hoyte explained further that they grow three short grain varieties from Northern Japan. They have added a Russian variety, an Italian and two African ones. They harvest in November and everything is sold out by February.
Maria Reidelbach, RVGA host for the event said afterwards, “The passion and dedication that the farmers and local grain activists shared with us and the huge and engaged audience turnout show that there is a hunger for events that both teach about local farming and strengthen community ties among farmers and neighbors. The combination of the beautiful setting of Arrowood Farm, locally grown snacks, a great short film and live drumming made for a fabulous August evening in the Rondout Valley. The RVGA hopes to have more events like this in the future — sign up to our email list to stay in the loop!”