Building the Value Chain for Local Grains
in the Northeast
Talking with June Russell of GrowNYC Grains
Reviving regional grains requires coordinating and re-educating key stakeholders across the value-chain, from growers to consumers.
The craft beer and distillery markets provide an important sales outlet for grains not suitable for food processing.
Bakers need training and education to navigate the increased complexity of baking with flour from local grain.
More infrastructure investment is required to support the harvesting and post-harvest-handling of regional grains.
Contributor: Mark Phillips
Though born out of Greenmarket Farmers Market Programs in New York City, the achievement and scope of GrowNYC Grains has extended well beyond the city markets themselves. Since 2007, GrowNYC Grains has helped catalyze the development of the entire value-chain for regional grains in the Hudson Valley and larger Northeast. Working across the food system with plant breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, and consumers, GrowNYC has played a key role in coordinating a whole suite of activities necessary for returning local, ecologically grown grains to our food system.
In part one of a two part interview, we hear from June Russell, Manager of Farm Inspections, Strategic Development, & GrowNYC Grains, about the key role she has played over her 10+ years of involvement in the project.
How did GrowNYC, an organization based in New York City, become such a key player in stimulating a larger vision of regional grain revilitaization in the Hudson Valley and Northeast United States?
From the beginning this has been something we stepped into, which then took off with a life of its own. The reason we got into it in the first place was that we were reviewing our baker’s rules at Greenmarkets in 2007. There was some tension in the marketplace in that bakers were taking up valuable real estate but not contributing to the mission of the organization — which is to support growers through direct-marketing opportunities. Bakers had an important role in the market but didn’t have to manage the same risks as farmers in dealing with catastrophic weather events. In recognizing this, we wanted to find a way for bakers to more directly support farmers, and began assessing whether or not it was feasible to expect bakers to use local flour.
We started with an asset survey to identify who the potential collaborators were. This included the Northeast, because Greenmarkets has a region that encompasses six states. Because of my other role as Manager of Farm Inspections I am out in this territory and was able to identify collaborators. By 2008 I had met some folks doing research in the Northeast Organic Wheat project through a SARE grant that Eli Rogosa had working with NOFA-NY, VT, and MA. There was already an interest there in testing some varieties — we needed resources and they needed bakers, and it was a match.
There’s been a lot of momentum and collaboration since then, continuing with that first grant we had in 2010 called “Farm to Bakery,” where we worked with New York State Ag and Markets, NOFA-NY and the New York Industrial Retention Network to explore value-chain development for regionally grown and milled grains.
Today, bakers at the Greenmarkets are using over 65,000 pounds of local flour each month — an achievement that has required the coordination of many different stakeholders and activities across the value chain. What have you learned about grains and their place in the regional food system since beginning this project in 2007?
It has been a long, long, journey since those days, let me tell you that! (laughs). There is a lot of complexity in this work. Wheat is a complex ingredient, though you wouldn’t think it, and the system that supports it is really complex. And in the Northeast we had lost all of that — though I’d say we never had it.
Folks like to say we used to be the bread basket, but they’re talking about the colonial era — a point in time when the entire country had fewer people than there are in New York City right now. So we’re talking very different systems than what we’re looking at today, and that has been a big challenge in trying to revive it all today.
First of all, the evolution of today's wheat varieties co-evolved with the modern food system. I would consider that to be one of our biggest barriers today, this disconnect. We’re really operating in different paradigms. I don’t necessarily think we’re going back to some golden era, I think we’re in uncharted territory. We have a much more sophisticated food culture than we had 200 years ago, and we have more sophisticated agriculture as well. I think what our colleagues are doing in organic agriculture is different than anything that’s been happening even in the last fifty years.
It’s really new territory and the exciting thing is that what we have been able to get established has been met with great enthusiasm. We’ve got high quality breads, we’ve got good flavor components. All of the things people didn’t think would be possible in the early days — that this would never happen because in “the Northeast you can’t grow good wheat,” or it’s going to be “too expensive” — neither of those things are true.
When I get asked to speak about the work I usually say that we have our proof of concept at this point and now the work can really begin. We’ve got some things that are established. We’ve been able to make a teeny dent in the marketplace. And we’ve got some models to look at, both with farmers and processing facilities, and value-added producers making great food products. This ranges from bread and other value-added foods to the craft beverage sector, which has been a big bonus in the development of regional grains. Distillers coming online and brewers now kicking in, that’s starting to lift things and could potentially give us the whole system.
At this point we sort of have the outlines of something but we definitely need to fill it in a lot more. We are now actively fundraising to figure out the next steps and looking for a way to do strategic planning to continue this work.
What have been some of the more surprising or unexpected challenges you’ve worked through over the past ten years?
It’s been hard to imagine, there’s been so much discovery along the way to tell you the truth. I think we’ve had to learn a lot as we’ve gone forth, frankly. I tell the story of Farmer Ground Flour, a mill up in Trumansburg who started with us almost ten years ago. They brought 10 pound bags of flour to a bakers meeting and people said “it doesn’t work.” And that was a really big question for us, “what does it mean the flour doesn’t work for you?” That doesn’t happen with other foods: you don’t give a tomato to a cook and have them say, “this doesn’t work for me, I can’t cook with it.”
Delving into these questions from the start really opened us up to the specific challenges that bakers encounter in using flour from regionally grown grains. We didn’t know this would be an issue because everyone is so calibrated to commodity flour. Even in the cooking schools there might be three kinds of flour and that’s it. Nobody is doing education around varietal differences, or the difference between winter and spring, or variable protein content or gluten structure. These are things we all had to learn and that we were not aware would be such a big problem.
We’ve also had to do this with very little resources, but now that we have a proof of concept we can make a case for requesting more resources to invest in this work.
Ten years ago people were skeptical that this would ever amount to much or have an impact, and now we can see it’s one of the major things that could have an impact for agriculture and creating healthy, functioning food systems. What are we talking about when we use this language? We think it starts at the foundation with field crops. And with that there’s a long way to go. We’ve got some really good examples that we can use to teach, but there’s a way to go.
What has GrowNYC’s engagement been with farmers in building out the value chain for regional grains? What were some of the key activities in building capacity to produce a viable product?
Ten years ago there were not many farmers diversifying grains. Corn and soy are very much the most popular field crops in our region, geared towards animal feed. From the very start, simply having appropriate seed varieties was a challenge. When we were looking for rye for a baker down here, nobody had it. Thor Oechsner of Oechsner Farms in Newfield, NY had to bring a seed variety in from Canada that he had to work hard to find because nobody had continued rye varieties to harvest the grain off of — there were plenty of varieties being used as a cover crop and as green manure, but those weren’t designed to mature and produce decent grain heads.
This is a specific example that carries over to other crops like wheat, and all of the wheat varieties and even oats. The primary challenge has been the availability of appropriate varieties and then the knowledge base required for working with them. We lost many generations of know-how going back 100 years when the last of those diversified grains were being grown in the Northeast, and largely that was for animal feed — farmers were not primarily harvesting for the food-grade market.
And then even with the right genetics and production practices in place, we still needed to build up infrastructure for post-harvest handling. Nobody had an oat roller—that’s the second aspect of this: the equipment necessary for grain production and processing. Of all that equipment and infrastructure a lot has been developed for commodity production, and at a very large scale. Combines, for example, are geared towards the flat Midwest landscape, whereas here in the Northeast we have smaller acreage that’s hilly, rolling, and rocky. We haven’t seen new equipment be developed yet, but we’ve seen a lot of old equipment come out of barns and be put back into use. Machines from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
And then there’s the need for facilities that can handle the project as well. Older mills in the region were not prepared to work with new farmers. One farmer who grew wheat for the first time was rejected from sale to a local mill because his grains did not meet quality standards. There’s a whole list of specifications you need to meet if you’re going to sell into a food-grade market, made all the more difficult by growing conditions in the Northeast — more wet and humid — which puts disease pressure on grains as well.
Little by little farmers are learning. It generally takes a good 4-5 years for them to have enough experience to produce marketable crops. It’s certainly been helpful for the distillers market to come on board,. One reason is that there’s a disease that affects grains called vomitoxin, which produces a mold called fusarium, but it doesn’t survive the distilling process. I think we would have lost some of our growers if they didn’t have that market to sell into. That was a big revelation that informed what we are talking about when we talk about food systems. That’s a very important role to be fulfilled in the system — to have a route to market for crops that might not otherwise make food grade.
Another important aspect for farmers is that diversified grain production can help increase agricultural resilience in the face of climate change intensification. Have you done any work to tell this story to consumers?
We’re starting to work it in more because it’s now front and center. It’s been interesting to see that shift happen. Five years ago it wasn’t something anyone really wanted to hear about. I’d say we do it to the extent that we tell other people’s stories. We tell the stories of other folks that we work with and try to get it out there. It’s been in the narratives of people we’ve worked with and definitely see it as an unfortunate but major opportunity to expand the work, and we need to.
How else does GrowNYC engage farmers throughout the Northeast?
I’d like to think that we have that opportunity at markets on a weekly basis. Through the spaces that we provide, the opportunities for consumers to connect with producers and then our staff doing that education component whether it’s as simple as doing a cooking demo, giving folks a taste and a handout with a recipe. Site visits are also really beneficial. It makes a big impact on people when they see things in real time, those summer field days are crucial. It was interesting to be with bakers who had never seen a field of wheat, ever, and for them to realize all of the steps that grain goes through before it gets to them can have a big impact. It certainly had a big impact on me!
Being able to provide those opportunities is crucial, because we’re so disconnected when it comes to these field crops and small grains — they have been invisible and outside of the local foods conversation for years and years. When we work with kids at the markets they often say that pizza is their favorite food, so it’s great to show kids the process of where pizza comes from — all of the things that need to happen to have it on their plate at the end of the day.
Within our proposal, looking to develop a strategic plan is on the list for us, and engaging with our stakeholders on where to take this work next. Something that is inclusive; I think it’s more powerful when we make decisions together and develop buy-in from everyone, rather than us just dictating which way we think things should go.