LOUISA, VA — At the recent Virginia Farm to Table Conference, Dr. Elizabeth Dyck suggested that there are opportunities for farmers in the mid-Atlantic to develop markets for locally grown grain.
The vision she illustrated was one in which entrepreneurial farmers realize higher prices for their crops than those found in the commodity grain markets. The premium would offset the production drags and higher costs associated with growing grain in areas outside of the nation’s traditional breadbasket regions. Dr. Dyck also suggested growing heirloom varieties as a way to bolster the possibility of success for such a strategy.
William Hale is a farmer already finding success growing grain and marketing it outside of the traditional commodity market. His farm in Louisa County certainly qualifies as artisanal in scale, with 25 acres of certified organic cropland, not all of which is under production in any one year. But Hale’s small-scale grain operation has captured enough added value to be, in conjunction with a commercial compost operation, sustainable.
The key to his success in grain production, Hale said, is his ability to participate in a variety of markets. Hale sells seed to a number of seed companies, sells grain which ends up for human consumption, and is developing an organic animal feed market for the grain not suitable for either of those two higher-value markets.
For seed, Hale grows two types of popcorn — Pennsylvania butter-flavored and Dynamite (South American Yellow) — as well as naked oats and Wren’s Abruzzi Rye (a high tillering rye good for winter grazing in the Southeast). He has also experimented lately with growing milo and cover crop radish as a seed crop.
A baker in Richmond sought out Hale to grow for him an old-fashioned dent corn for use in meal mixes. The two settled on Bloody Butcher, which Hale also now grows as a seed crop, too, as well as for sale to the baker.
Hale is able to obtain a premium for his grain crop because he focuses on niche varieties, has found a place supplying high-value markets, and because he grows his grain organically.
“There’s more planning required,” when growing organic grains, Hale said, “both for weed suppression and fertility.”
To control weeds, Hale cultivates and intercrops with a cover crop. He practices minimum tillage, using radishes and the deep-rooted Wren’s Abruzzi Rye to work on his farm’s hardpan.
To supply nutrients to his cropland, Hale uses both cover crops and compost from his commercial operation. “There isn’t a more efficient way to put organic matter in the soil than through a plant and its roots,” he said. He spreads compost after discing in the cover crop.
The corn harvest at Hale’s farm is in many ways antiquated, but it suits Hale’s strategy. He uses a one-row picker and then sorts ears by hand based on quality into seed grade, meal grade, and feed grade. For small grain, he harvests with a 1971 Gleaner combine and uses an old fanning mill to clean the grain.
In addition to growing grain, Hale also operates a commercial compost operation. It’s a business, he said, which depends on “the fortuitousness of feedstock supply.”
When Hale started his compost operation, he used primarily waste hay and poultry litter. Today he uses primarily wood shavings from a local pallet factory and okara (the insoluble parts of soybeans), which comes from a nearby tofu plant. Since okara is wet, Hale typically doesn’t have to spray his compost rows when turning them with his windrow turner like he did before he started using okara.
While not everyone will be able to grow grains for the organic seed market, some of the lessons Hale has learned over the past decade can be useful to farmers looking to create a local market for their grain. First, be diversified — have a multiple outlets for your crops. Second, if you decide to attempt to capture the added value that comes with growing organic, have a nutritious and an attractive crop, perhaps using heirloom varieties. Finally, build networks. You might, like Hale, find someone approach you asking you to grow a specific crop for them.
Even though Hale has found a niche growing organic grain, he doesn’t believe that’s necessary to find success growing grain for a local market. In fact, Hale sees mostly commonality in the conventional and organic grain markets.
“I really do believe there’s a convergence between conventional and organic producers,” he said, “particularly around a shared interest in the importance of soil health and biology.”