by Bill Weaver
George Wright of Metcalfe, Ontario, just north of New York State, has developed a unique business plan that allows him to support his family of five with just 44 acres, cropping about 20 acres a year in organic grains. His secret? Marketing just about all his grain at a very well-attended farmers’ market: the Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne. “We can get 5,000 people a day through the market.” At the market, he sells whole grains, oats rolled and as groats, and flours. “I grind 99 percent of the flour right there at the market,” he noted.
The counter at his stand is filled with plastic five-gallon buckets with lids, which contain the various types of grains that he grows. His prices, which his customers happily pay for locally grown grain, are very producer-friendly.
Wright charges by the cup of (unground) grain. “You want to measure it fast, not weigh it,” he added. “For flour, I use a previously graduated cup to scoop out the grain. I charge the same for the grains as for the flour, even though 3/4 cup of grain gives a cup of flour.”
One way Wright sells grain for such prices is by making his grain an “experience.” He explains: “People like bowls of grain and flour to run their fingers through, so they can feel it and see what the different grains look like.” So Wright’s stand has small bowls of the grains and the flour so his customers can do just that. “Otherwise,” he said, “people will want to open your buckets and start running their fingers through the grain in the buckets!”
He gives his customers other ways to experience the grain. “I have a little hand grinder that kids have fun cranking away on. I also bring a tandem bike hooked up to a bigger grinder that takes two people to run.” People like activity and Wright is careful to provide his customers with these hands-on opportunities.
“Only one stand like ours could make it at a given market. We grow so many kinds of grains and offer so many kinds of flour, that it kind of keeps anyone else from getting a toehold at the market we go to,” he added.
Seventy percent of Wright’s grain sales are rolled oats. He switched his oat growing to a hulless variety some years ago, because the hulless varieties make the job of cleaning and dehulling the grain so much easier.
“Vegans and vegetarians are eager purchasers of our rolled oats, and so are raw foodies, as soon as they find out that the rolled oats are raw, and not steamed or toasted.” These customers are now about 10 percent of his market.
Wheat flours are about 10 percent of Wright’s grain sales. “I raise five varieties because I’m worried about Fusarium. One is Red Fife Heritage wheat, which has moderately high protein. I grew Red Fife two years ago. I thought I had enough to last the year. It was all sold in two months.”
Wright continued, “I grow some grains just for interest sake, like triticale. But after I grew it, I found triticale has a ready-made market with some of my customers, thanks to Star-Trek. There are at least 10 guys who come to my market every week to buy triticale.”
The reason he only grows about 20 acres of grain a year is because of a very positive attribute of grains, compared to fruits and vegetables: grains store well. He makes two plantings a year of the grains that sell well at the farmers’ market. “To reduce the risk of Fusarium, and to prevent lodging in thunderstorms, I split my plantings into two stages, about two weeks apart.”
Great deals on field equipment
At the scale on which Wright farms, he has been able to use older equipment, which he has found for very good prices. “A Massey 35 does 95 percent of our farm work. We use a simple two-point hitch drill, about 8-feet wide. With a two-point hitch, you can back up and turn around easily.”
Weeding is critical on any organic farm, but Wright chose not to spend the money on a big time weeder. “I bought a pony harrow,” he said. “It folds up, has no moving parts. I can buy a pony harrow at auction for $200. Pony harrows work. They sit up a bit, so the frame doesn’t drag. They disrupt the weeds and can sometimes bury the plants about an inch.”
Wright continues, “You have to weed early and often. Hope doesn’t do it. I weed just before the first grains emerge, once at the two-leaf stage, and once at the three-leaf stage. I don’t use a rotary hoe because I haven’t found one. If I had one, I could probably cultivate a little longer.”
The storm window trick
Just after planting a field of grain, Wright lays down a storm window on the seeded soil. The soil under the storm window will be a bit warmer than the rest of the soil in the field, because of the “greenhouse effect” of the sun shining through the glass. When Wright sees the first green wisps of grain emerging under the window, he knows the rest of the field is not far behind. He gets out his pony harrow and begins cultivating.
He trades his labor (or his son’s) to an older farmer in return for the occasional use of his tractor. This maneuver benefits both sides: the older farmers are glad for some younger muscle to do jobs they can no longer do, and the tractor has greatly cut down on Wright’s expenses.
Three $19 grass seeders, dragged behind the pony harrow during the last cultivation, do a fine job of under seeding double-cut red clover.
Equipment for working with grain
“There’s no such thing as a small grain drier,” Wright continued. “A small grower can lay the grain on a black tarp for two days (laying another tarp over it at night) and the grain will be dry enough at the end of the second day to store for years.”
For cleaning grain, Wright invested $500 for 30 screens, sized to samples of his grain that he’d sent to a company in Ohio, which is still in business. “With these screens I can make one or two passes, instead or 7 or 8. We do everything by the bucket.”
Tested Gluten Free
A big milestone for the farm was getting their oats and buckwheat certified as “Tested Gluten-Free.” A sign on the front of the Wright’s market stands proclaims this status. “Currently, 30 percent of my rolled oats customers demand gluten free.” Originally, he tried and failed the test several times before finally figuring out what his problems were: volunteer grain plants containing gluten from the previous crop rotation and tiny bits of other gluten-containing grains that were left behind in his combine.
So he changed his rotation to have two years of clover before planting oats and buckwheat to get rid of this “volunteer grain” problem.
To completely clean his combine, he uses a two-inch water pump. “It seems to flush everything out better than a pressure washer. It originally took me two days to clean the combine completely, but now I can do it much faster.”
With those two changes, Wright was able to pass every test. He has been “Tested Gluten-Free” for four years now.
Stale Seedbed Planting
Wright gets rid of a lot of potential weed problems by tilling his soil twice as soon as he can get on the land in early spring. These two tillings leave what’s called a “stale seedbed” in which the top inch or so contains very little weed seed that can germinate. He then plants in that “stale seedbed,” giving him a jump on the weeds before the planting season even starts.
Interested readers can check out Wright’s website, castorriverfarm.ca, for more information about his farm.