Different grains for different markets

by Courtney Llewellyn

During this year’s Grains Week, a lot of attention was paid to the plants that go into making beer and brown liquors, but there are myriad market channels for grains. Discussing some of the ones tackled at her farm was Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yan, NY, where she and her husband Klaas have been rotating grains for more than 30 years.

Described as an interactive online celebration of value-added small grains for farmers, bakers, brewers, distillers, millers, maltsters and consumers, Grains Week was a national collaborative effort of the Culinary Breeding Network, Oregon State University, Cornell University, UW-Madison, eOrganic, the Artisan Grain Collaborative, GrowNYC Grains, Cascadia Grains and the WSU Food Systems Program. Martens’ presentation was “Rotational Crops for Diversified Market Channels.”

More than 2,000 acres of certified organic grain and processing vegetables are grown at the Martens’ farm, and they’ve been certified organic since 1992. Mary-Howell began by talking about the feed grain side of their operation, which she said is important for farm viability. “Not all grains grown in your area will meet food grade,” she said. “Some of them will need to find another profitable, viable home for the sake of the farmers.” Fortunately, she added, there is a strong feed grain demand in the Northeast.

In addition to growing their own grains, they’ve been operating an organic feed mill for 25 years, buying mostly from local farmers and selling to organic dairy farms, chicken farms and backyard operations. “It allowed the conversion of a lot of acres, and diversion of grains that don’t meet the food grade market,” she said.

Lakeview Organic Grain grows for a lot of different markets, and Martens said they feel very strongly that that is their risk management strategy – it keeps diversity and flexibility in their markets, in climatic adaptation, in seasons, in soil health management, in labor management and in income streams.

“Most of the time, when talking about grains, people think of small grains,” Martens said. “We can pare that down to six different grains: wheat, barley, triticale, spelt, rye and oats.” She explained that spelt can be grown for food, seed, Kosher goods and straw; oats, for feed and seed; rye, for distilling, cover crops and seed; barley, for seed, malting and feed; and triticale, for forage and cover crops. Wheat is always good for food, seed and straw.

Other than adding diversity in a crop rotation – creating intentional biodiversity – why consider growing small grains? Martens listed the following reasons: breaking pest cycles, improving weed control, improving organic matter and soil building, spreading and reducing a farm’s workload over time and utilizing cover crops, forage and rolled no-till options.

“We all as farmers are conditioned to put a lot into agronomics – growing, harvesting and being proud of our amber waves of grain,” she said. However, “buyers are more interested if the grain is suitable for their intended purpose.” For baking and brewing, the quality specifications are very high, she noted.

“We talk about the ‘fuss’ factor with value-added specialty markets,” Martens said. “The greater the value, the more exacting the requirements, the more attention to detail. There is potentially greater loss (but often less competition).”

Sometimes, though, deals fall through. What do you do with unsold grains? What other markets are there? Farmers can always grow small grains for seed. They need good germination and vigor, high purity (just one varietal, be free of noxious weeds and contain no foreign materials) and they need to obey seed quality laws.

More information about small grains and their market can be found at lakevieworganicgrain.com.

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