by Tamara Scully
The production area at Homestead Heritage farm is dominated by an odd-looking contraption, one which happens to be on the cutting edge of value-added products. Visitors may hear a whistle, which forewarns of the oncoming, loud “bang,” signaling completion of the process, and the availability of a new value-added product.
Custom-built, the machine was installed and began cranking out its first products in spring 2013. Joseph Yoder, who farms along wife his wife, Mary, and their nine children, on their Muncy, PA, farm, is eager to share information on his new product line: puffed grains.
Staying ahead of the game, creating innovative products from others’ crops, is one part of what the Yoder family does best. Their line of value-added products take the best of local farm crops — including their own fruits — and transforms them into higher-value, direct-to-consumer retail food products.
While the mysterious $11,000 grain-puffing machine may be too expensive for every small grain farmer to own, Yoder feels he made an investment which not only will help his farm, but one which helps area grain farmers to tap into the value-added cereal market. Yoder will purchase grains directly, or provide custom-puffing for area grain farmers, whereby they can sell the product under their own label.
“My goal is to buy grain and to puff cereal, and sell it for our own markets, or wholesale,” Yoder said. He will also custom-puff grains for local farmers. The minimum amount of grain which he’ll puff is still being worked out, as are some of the details on the best puffing settings and techniques.
The machine puffs grains in a few simple steps. A stainless steel chamber is heated via a propane-fueled burner below, and the eight pounds of grain it can hold in one batch is air agitated. Moisture in the grain, best kept at about the 15 percent level, creates just the right amount of steam. Some additional water is typically added during the process. As the temperature rises to somewhere above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the pressure builds. Around 150 pounds of pressure, the contraption tilts, and the grain puffs. It’s a half hour initial heating process, with 20 minutes in between subsequent runs.
Attempting to balance “a good puff” with the risk of a burnt taste, the family has been toying with the temperature settings. The grain’s moisture content, and even the relative humidity, play a role in the ideal puffer settings, Yoder said.
“It’s an art. It’s a challenge. We have to connect temperature, moisture and how much air we start with,” when processing a batch of grain. If the moisture content is too high, the grains will stick together. If it’s too dry, they won’t all puff.
The sifter removes kernels that don’t puff. The puffed product then cools on a large tray for 20 minutes, during which time it not only cools down enough to pack, but it gains its signature crunch. The grain is then packed into food-grade bags, labeled, and ready for sale. The ultimate shelf-life is still being tested. For now, the puffed grains are being consumed by eager customers, and just how long they stay crisp and fresh is not exactly known.
The entire process is all done in a certified kitchen area on the farm. The puffer has been used for wheat, spelt, emmer, and rice. It is perfect for farmers growing smaller amounts of ancient grains, and seeking a value-added market beyond flour or grain berries. It’s not only plain puffed grains, either. They add caramel and toast the product for a crunchy, sweet treat, can add cinnamon and raisins, or a bit of local honey. All natural ingredients and small-batch, local farm processing make this puffed cereal stand out from the grocery store products. The family also makes granola, granola mixes and trail mixes. It’s a “whole grain breakfast cereal buffet,” as their advertising brochures state.
The grain-puffing machine is just the newest addition to the Yoder farmstead. Long before he dreamed of a grain puffer, Yoder’s daughter Jemima was dreaming of crafting the finest quality farmstead cheeses. Jemima, who began making cheese at age 14, is the clan’s head cheese maker.
Located in a separate creamery on the farm, the Yoder’s Homestead Heritage cheeses make the most of local raw milk They’ve been handcrafting small batch artisan cheeses since 2009. But the Yoders don’t milk cows, or goats. Instead, they purchase raw milk from small, local dairy farmers.
They are licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to purchase milk and make raw milk products. By purchasing milk from local dairy farmers, the Yoders boast the local farm economy, providing an alternative raw milk sales outlet for small dairy farmers.
Just like their other value-added products, the family doesn’t only sell their cheeses under their own brand. They also make custom cheeses for dairy farmers who don’t want to make their own cheese, but want to gain value from their raw milk. They custom-make cheese for the Farmstead Fresh brand. While Jemima taught herself many cheese making techniques and develops her own recipes, she also trained under the late famed cheese maker Eldore Hanni, of Farmstead Fresh. Jemima was selected to craft cheeses, using some of Eldore’s own recipes, for the company brand, which is quite the honor.
Jemima crafts over 17 varieties of raw milk cheeses for the farm’s own Homestead Heritage brand. From crumbly cheddar to semi-firm, flavored cheese, these small batch, aged raw milk cheeses come only from 100-percent grassfed cows. No hormones, steroids, additives or supplements are in the pure milk. She also makes raw goat milk cheeses, under the same exacting standards.
“We want to make cheese from the freshest milk.” Jemima said. Raw milk boasts high butterfat content, and is not homogenized. Each batch of milk is acid-tested. Acid testing indicates how old the milk is upon arrival, Raw milk has to be the best, freshest quality to make perfect cheeses.
The small batch cheeses are stirred by hand. The curds are packed into molds and covered with cheese cloth. A half dozen or so 40-pound molds are stacked on top of one another in the cheese press. The cheese is pressed by adding weights to the end of a bar, providing leverage, and applying pressure to the stacked molds. The cheeses are left overnight in the press, then cut into 10-pound blocks, vacuum-sealed and aged in a separate aging room.
Jemima and family produced 6,300 pounds of cheese during October alone. They keep very detailed records of every batch, and can trace back retail-sized packages of cheese to the exact date and time the milk was processed. The recipe, the cheese aging time, the rennet used, the milk’s origins and more are all coded and recorded.
The family has an orchard of 120 primarily peach trees, with some apples and cherries, on their 17 acres. They also grow berries and grapes. They grow most of their own fruit and vegetables, and always raise extra, which is sold or processed into value-added canned goods. They are innovative, and are always looking for new value-added products to add to their line.
“If we get a good potato crop, we’ll make potato chips,” Yoder said. It’s all about utilizing the resources available, and making the most of the raw farm products available locally. Whether crafting products for sale under their own brand, or doing custom work for other farms, Homestead Heritage means added value.
by Tamara Scully