Friday, February 19, 2010

Local Grain

By Nicole Sugerman

Two weekends ago, I traveled to Fernbrook Farm, an organic CSA in New Jersey, with apprentices Megan and Lauren. With Fernbrook’s apprentice, Rob, Lauren has been conducting a small-grains raising experiment this season, and I was excited to tag along for part of the process. They had previously harvested the dry wheat, so we worked on threshing, which is the process of separating the wheat berries from the chaff. While large grain producers have machines that do this work for them, we did it the very, very old fashioned (and labor intensive) way—by beating two-by-fours against the grain on a sheet, until the wheat berries all fell loose from the chaff and cracked open in their hulls. Other techniques for small scale threshing include smashing the grain inside a pillowcase, having an animal or person repeatedly walk on the grain, or putting the grain between two tarps and running over it in your car (!). This last way seemed like it had the potential to go very wrong, so we did not try it.

Next, Lauren and Rob will winnow the grain, or separate it from the pieces of chaff and hulls it now resides with in a five-gallon bucket. On a small scale, this is usually accomplished by running a window fan or catching a breezy day and pouring the wheatberries from one bucket to another—the chaff will be blown away in the breeze, while the heavier berries will fall to the bucket below. After that, they will grind the wheat into flour, a formidable process on its own without a large-scale grain mill. Grains on a small scale are a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.

The idea of local grains has long been seductive to me. The challenges are many- we completely lack a local grain processing infrastructure, and grain is traditionally produced on a scale for which our region lacks the space. Still, I think an urban grain project would be really exciting, and more and more people are catching the ‘local grain’ bug. Daisy Flour, an old Pennsylvania flour company using a grain mill that has been operating since the 1750’s, has recently been reintroduced, producing organic, PA-grown wheat and spelt flours in Lancaster County. The Heritage Wheat Conservancy is researching traditional wheat types grown in New England, growing test crops to try to re-introduce climate-specific, regional wheat varieties. I follow the progress of efforts like these with enthusiasm, but knowing next to nothing about raising grain, have pegged it as a topic for winter reading. I hope to experiment with growing my own small grains in the future, and hope that, someday, we will see the existence of a Philadelphia-based local grain project.

Learn More About Local Grain

Web Resources:

Daisy Flour:

Heritage Wheat Conservancy:

Further Reading:

“Flour That Has The Flavor of Home”
The New York Times, September 2008

"Small Scale Grain Raising"
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Publishing

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