Educating all stakeholders in the grain value chain must be a continuing priority.
Continued technical assistance and infrastructure is needed for grain farmers in the greater Hudson Valley.
There is opportunity at the New York State level to incentivize the use of local grains in sectors beyond the craft beverage industry.
The concept of “terroir” could help differentiate local grains from commodity crops.
A funded value chain coordination office could be the next step for supporting local grains in the Hudson Valley & Northeast.
Building the Value Chain for Local Grains
in the Northeast
An Interview with June Russell and
Heidi Dolnick of GrowNYC Grains
Contributor: Mark Phillips
In this second part of our interview with GrowNYC Grains we speak with June Russell, Manager of Farm Inspections, Strategic Development, & GrowNYC Grains, and Heidi Dolnick, Development and Partnerships Coordinator at GrowNYC Grains, about their 10+ years of experience with this innovate multi-stakeholder project. They discuss their role in creating a marketplace for local grains in New York City and their larger experience with value-chain development for grains in the Northeast United States.
From the start, GrowNYC has leveraged the Greenmarket Farmers Markets as a vehicle for the marketing and education of local grains. What forms has this taken over the years, and why has it been important to educate consumers?
Our biggest asset here is market exposure and our ability to reach the consumer directly and this was the first thing we did on our Farm to Bakery grant project [see Part 1 of this interview]. We did a Grains Week in 2010 to get the idea out there and make an introduction to consumers, chefs, and bakers about what the potential was, to literally seed their imaginations with what could be possible. We have a lot of allies who want to do as much as they can with as many local ingredients as possible, and so many food innovators have stepped up over the years.
That was the first thing we did — simply get it out there and develop some marketing materials to work on some of that education. We created a website with some initial resources and contact information. We’ve got managers at our markets that do cooking demonstrations. Just getting folks to taste food produced with these grains can be a great awakening for folks.
More specifically, we’ve used some of the funding we had to do case studies and videos on processing and baking with local grain. Such videos served as an effort to draw out of our bakers what was happening and teach the nuances of local flour to other folks and make it accessible to work with. Even that was difficult — finding people who could articulate what was happening with local grains. We still see that as a big barrier going forward, that continued education. Both for the professionals and for the consumers.
In 2009 Greenmarkets created a rule that required bakers at the market to use 15 percent local flour to be eligible for selling at the markets, and we just raised that to 25 percent, which will be going into effect this year. For the most part people have embraced this. Based on the last audits, the average use of local flour was 38 percent, so I think most folks are ready for it. To a certain extent they’re really proud of it and they should be, that Greenmarket has been a leader in this way. As other areas in the country are starting local grains initiatives, I’ve heard from our bakers that they still want Greenmarket to take the lead on this work and move our target even more to over 25 percent.
While GrowNYC has a very direct role in operating the Greenmarkets and providing routes to market for food producers in the region, your engagement with grains has also extended to activities and stakeholders across the entire food system. What has informed this holistic approach to working across the value-chain to develop regional grains?
It’s been a combination of factors. I made my living full time for over 15 years in the food business, which was valuable in understanding that side of the value-chain. And then being that person who can bridge between different communities in the food system; I’m out in the field because of my other role as Farm Inspections Manager, which allows me to talk directly to farmers and understand all of the steps that need to happen, and trying to engage with whoever might be able to fill in the blank spots in the system.
But it’s been kind of after the fact — I’ve read about value-chain development and said to myself, “Oh, that’s what we’ve been doing this whole time!” (laughs)
Even all of the way to the breeders, we’ve been a research resource as well. The link that we’re providing between the market and the growers, millers, processors, it goes all the way to the breeders and the creation of the seeds.
I would certainly also credit some of the visionaries who have been mentors, which includes some of the breeders and some of the farmers as well. Folks from the organic community, a lot of this comes from their vision. The goal of our second big grant: adding value to these crops. The whole point was recognizing the need for longer crop rotations, and that it wasn’t going to happen until some form of incentive was provided for farmers to get in the game.
Our wheelhouse is the market development more than anything. To be able to put a lot of energy into that has been the main project, to provide incentive and market support.
From what you’ve said so far, it would seem that much of the early-stage production of grains has relied on farmer “champions” — people driven by the larger story of this work. At this point, is there a real financial case to be made for new farmers interested in pursuing local grain production?
We have a proposal out right now to do case studies on the different models that we’ve seen to better understand this and share concrete examples. We’ve broken this out by size of the farm: less than 20 acres; 20 to 100; 100 to 500; and then 500 and more. In the Northeast I haven’t seen many farms larger than 1,500 acres. And I’ve seen a range of entrepreneurial spirit on the part of the farmers. There were early adopters who wanted something more interesting and challenging to get into, and some who saw a little buzz happening and they wanted to get in early in case it took off.
One of our early farmers is about 5 to 6 years into it and now has some good customers, primarily for the beverage market — a distiller and a couple of breweries — and it’s definitely changed his farm and the income streams on his farm. There’s a lot of folks who come to meetings and sit on the sidelines, and those are the folks we’re trying to reach next. What is it that’s going to change their minds and get them to enter into this space?
With this latest proposal we hope to be able to delve into that a little more and really understand what it will take to get those folks involved. What I’ve seen in the meantime is an evolution of that system, with some folks being successful. And there’s a lot to assess with that: each farm is different, their resources are different, their skill-sets. We’re looking to be able to assess where farmers would have to be and what it would take for them to be successful.
What are some of the key challenges GrowNYC is focused on today?
The market development is crucial. I’ve seen both sides of it and sometimes the market is ahead of supply and sometimes supply is ahead of the market, and there are different market channels now to sell into as a supplier. This is getting into what is perhaps our biggest challenge, and where we are looking for support: Being able to fund an office that works on coordination of all of these activities, where there’s a full-time position working on some of this coordination. You have different sectors that are evolving on their own, but there is no coordination happening other than what we are providing.
New York State has put a lot into the craft beverage program, and that’s been hugely impactful. But if you think about expanding this and going forward, it’s not like we want to see a farmer just adopt wheat and be a wheat grower alone. We want to see continued crop diversity and longer rotations. If someone spends time to get up to speed on wheat, they’re still going to have to work in other rotations to maintain healthy soils and create this regenerative agriculture that we’re just starting to talk about.
We work with Vermont Bean Crafters right now — they’re the cleaning and processing facility that contracts with growers — and we include beans as a part of the grains project because we’re looking at all of those field crops that share the same production challenges and barriers to entry in the marketplace and which also play an important role in crop rotation and soil health.
What we really want to see is organic growers with 7-9 different crops, pretty sophisticated rotations. Whereas there’s a lot of conventional growers, which might be doing wheat as a break crop but they’ve really gone to doing just GMO corn and soy, which just isn’t sustainable.
What are some of the missing pieces for the development of regional grains right now?
The first thing would be more information. We have access to and can get good information on the beverage sector, and that’s because the New York State Liquor Authority keeps records on everything. But we don’t have good information on the food grade market. We don’t know what the potential is for that marketplace. That would be another thing: some market surveys. It’s still a heavy lift. We’ve also had some initial stakeholder conversations about developing an East Coast bread or grains lab as a means to educate our consumers as well as the professionals and to continue to delve into variabilities and varieties.
We have colleagues in a current project on the West Coast; they’ve delved into some of the sensory evaluation of different varieties and what that might be useful for. Washington State is growing several different varieties of barley and doing chemical mapping of flavour compounds and how they change after going through the distillation process — what they were at their whole grain state. That’s pretty exciting. They’re really embracing the concept of terroir. I think there’s a lot more work that could happen with that in the food grade sector — the beverage sector has really gotten a lot more resources thrown at it compared to baking and the development of other food grade products.
You’ve mentioned that GrowNYC is looking to develop a more formal role in coordinating the value-chain for regional grains in the Northeast. Moving forward, what activities or projects do you envision as necessary to build on the success that you’ve achieved thus far?
I think an important role in the realm of coordination would be to combine the different field crops and assist our farmers in developing capacity. I gave this example where we don’t want to see just wheat growers, we want to see a diversity of crops that our growers can work with. And that takes some hand-holding. Some farmers literally just want to be told what to grow and what’s going to make them some money. With what’s been happening in the conventional market I think there is some real desperation with this right now, especially with the dairy industry struggling.
There’s space for more assistance there. It’s been happening through Cornell Cooperative Extension and NOFA-NY, and we could certainly see a lot more. Maybe that means gathering bids together, keeping tabs, and helping create new market opportunities.
The exciting thing is that this has been created. There was no market demand when we started. There was no demand for emmer but now there is as a result of something we helped create. And the reason we did it is that our colleagues in the organic community saw it as an important step towards greater crop diversity and resilience — that those species of grains would have greater flexibility in the face of extreme weather and climate change. It was our responsibility to create a market for it, and we didn’t do it alone but we’ve definitely had a lot of impact.
In that coordinating position it’s about looking at both the push and pull, and what’s the next barrier we need to address and figure out a strategy to open up those channels, whether they’re in production or on the marketing end.
We’ve done a lot. June has moved mountains. With the proper funding, this is just an indicator of what can be done with the right investment and right resources. We’ve really scratched the surface, and we’ve done it with the minimum resources available to us. Just watching the lever of the market doing it’s magic is the proof we’ve needed to know what the potential really is.
A lot of investment has been put into crops like hemp and cider and craft beverage, which has been wonderful, but we can’t help but imagine what would happen if it were put into wheat, grain, and other field crops, those foods that form 75 percent of the American diet. This feels very foundational to us, and if we’re talking about moving the needle and building a resilient regional food system, it can’t happen without a much larger scale shift in both supply and demand for these products and crops.
Our research partners in Oregon gave some barley to our partners here at Cornell, who then grew enough to give us a few hundred pounds of that naked barley -- we sold 500 pounds within two months at our market. Of course we wanted more, and we told Mark Sorrells at Cornell, but he doesn’t have any more yet.
We have a lot of trust because of our brand as a platform. At Greenmarket we have so much trust among culinary professionals in NYC — they just need to see that we carry the products and it becomes an implicit endorsement. And on the flip side we have trust among a huge network of farmers and processors. They know that we’re selling it, so they’re gonna plant it. We’re really excited to keep doing the work, but we’re not going to be able to keep doing it unless we get funding. Our biggest need right now is finding a way to fund the next stage of this project — we have the proof of concept and now we just need support to help build it out.