Gene L’Etoile of Four Star Farms, MA, spoke to attendees at the 2nd annual Hudson Valley Value-Added Grain School and Trade Show, hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County (CCEUC) and CCE Capital Area Agriculture and Horticulture Program.
He described how he and his wife began a turf operation for sports fields, home lawns and other landscaping needs in 1976. Then, as their family expanded, they added a hops operation on less than an acre of land and started small grains on 8 acres in 2008. Today they have expanded to 110 acres of turf, 17 acres of hops and over 120 acres of grain and heritage corn, on both their own and rented land.
“We have to do more than commodities,” L’Etoile said. “What do people want? How do you make grain into a non-commodity? How are you going to add values to grains?”
L’Etoile said Four Star sells their value-added products as “local” ingredients. “People are concerned about their food. They want to know what they’re eating; they want to be able to see where their food is coming from. They want to be able to talk to the people growing it,” L’Etoile said. “We’re local.”
He explained the value of inviting customers – and potential customers – for farm tours. He hosts a field day each year. “We’ve had up to 450 people come. What people see growing; they know they are going to be buying.”
L’Etoile secured accounts with large “craft bakers,” by allowing them to be in on the ground floor of their business to observe the growing, harvesting and milling. Customers come from Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts. “They know they can come to our farm and feel comfortable.”
L’Etoile also emphasized the value of supporting the community and serving on local boards and committees; therefore building consumer trust and respect and expanding his customer base through those relationships. “People know us. They know that we’re there.”
He emphasized cleanliness in the business.
“You have to have a clean product,” said L’Etoile, stressing cleanliness not only of all products, but also of equipment, grain bins, facilities, and all appearances in general, are critical.
He spoke about rats destroying some milling businesses and the reputations of the producers as well. “People want to know that the food they’re eating is safe!”
L’Etoile says when all aspects of the business are in order, including customer service; customers are willing to pay a premium amount for the product. “They need to know that the value is there.”
Four Star Farm does all of their own milling and offers a variety of specialty flour.
Aaron MacLeod of Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage gave a detailed presentation of the malting process and tests that are used to determine quality of malting barley. “Restrictions are strict,” MacLeod acknowledged. “There is quite a high quality standard for malting barley. That’s because this is a functional ingredient that maltsters have to do a lot with in order to brew.”
Target requirements include: moisture content below 13.5 percent; low protein at 9.5- 12.5 percent; germination no less than 95 percent; plump, uniform kernels; free of disease, insects, admixtures, ergot or foreign matter, and less than 5 percent of peeled, broken or damaged kernels. MacLeod cautioned that barley kernels must be handled carefully to avoid damage and emphasized repeatedly that producers know their market and have a good backup plan. “At the end of the day, you can only get good quality malt from good quality barley.” Contact MacLeod firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justin O’Dea, Senior Field Crop & Vegetable Resource Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County and program coordinator, said producers should consider distilling grains that do not meet quality standards for other markets. “There are a fair number of distilleries opening up in the Hudson Valley; there is a concentration of them all of the way down to New York.”
Joel Elder, owner/consultant of Quinta Essentia Alchemy, spoke to attendees about requirements for distillery grains and recommended producers consider distilleries as a first option for their grains.
Elder remarked that New York State is “unique” in the fact that the legislative government is encouraging growth of small grains for alcoholic beverages and said there has been a tremendous growth in distilleries over the past 7 years as a result. “There are 85 farm distilleries in New York State right now. One distillery could use 500 lbs. of grain per year. That’s significant. There’s a lot of potential there.”
Elder reported on grains needed for distilleries, with corn topping the list. Malting barley is second on the list, with rye and wheat also sought after.
He explained although distilleries may accept malting barley unacceptable for local malt houses, restrictions do apply. “You’re looking at the same general characteristics that you would with your current grain market, but we have a bit more tolerance.” High protein is not as much of an issue with distilleries as with brewers. “It has no effect in the final product.”
Elder spoke about DON, a toxic byproduct of fusarium head blight, which is only acceptable in brewing at 1 part per million. DON is a huge problem in the Northeast for malters. “Slightly higher DON levels may be acceptable,” said Elder. “I hesitate to put a number on it exactly, because it is a major human health risk.” Some distillers say five parts per million is acceptable.
“What I see for the future is Heritage grains,” commented Elder. “Flavor is of critical importance, as it is in beer; so it is in distilling. You brew significantly more character out when you distill, so you’ve got less to work with to begin with. Heritage grains are phenomenal for creating a really rich flavorful spirit – and my money is on that for the future. Quality makes the grain.”
CCE Capital Area Resource Educator Aaron Gabriel spoke to attendees about seed requirements and explained New York seed laws, importance of testing and labeling seed, where to get seed tested, and what management practices are needed to grow seed to meet necessary standards. “Many people do not realize that in New York, to sell any seed for planting, it must be tested and labeled. Sometimes farmers think they are ahead of the game by saving seed for replanting,” said Gabriel. “It may be an expensive variety or hard to find. However, the potential problems with this practice is getting poor germination; spreading weed seeds; spreading disease and getting a poor crop – and diluting out the genetic purity of the original certified seed, which means not getting the variety characteristics that you would expect in a malt or artisan flour.”
Sarah Johnston, NYS Dept. of Ag and Markets, gave an update on crop insurance for small grain crops and supplied attendees with data sheets. “The way that the Federal Government handles crop insurance is that it makes it available by crop and by county,” said Johnston. More information can be found at www.agriculture.ny.gov/AP/Cropinsurance.html.