While grain farmers in the Northeast grappled with rainy weather and growing demand for regional grains in 2011, off the farm, millers and processors worked to keep up with the expanding popularity of locally-produced flours, malts, and other products throughout this past year. This meant both challenges and exciting new additions to the region’s grain infrastructure. The relative newness of the small-scale grain system in the Northeast presents some challenges to scaling up. According to Glenda Neff of the Farm to Bakery project, almost all of the mills currently processing locally-grown grains are fairly new, small, stone mills. Few have the equipment to test for grain quality, so they have to send out samples to labs to check such characteristics as protein level and falling rate. In addition, access to equipment for post-harvest cleaning is limited; an increasing number of small-scale mills are considering how to add this to their set up.
Another challenge to infrastructure is the lack of additional processing equipment for those grains needing specialized processing, like oats. Cut oats need to be steamed and processed, so that the oils in them don’t go rancid. Currently, the set up to do this on a regional scale is largely lacking. Likewise, de-hulling equipment for grains like spelt and emmer is available in only a few locations throughout the region. Only two mills have de-hulling equipment, and process grains that need the hulls removed as a service for other farmers and millers in the region. Wild Hive Farm and Mill is one such processor hoping to provide this service. The need for growth in infrastructure creates an opportunity for scaling up, and 2011 marked a year of significant growth for the Northeast grainshed. According to miller Gregory Mol, for example, over the past six months Farmer Ground Flour has been purchasing additional equipment to expand its grinding capacity from 300 pounds per hour to an eventual 800 pounds per hour. Mol, who describes milling as a process of grinding and sifting, is adding a bigger stone mill and a couple more sifters to his facility. Some of the equipment was purchased used from the old Hodgson Mill facility, a national-scale processer of whole grain and organic products. Mol expects that, once the equipment is fully installed, his increased production capacity will lead to an eventual need for more storage space. Wild Hive Farm and Mill also greatly expanded its processing capacity in 2011. Owner Don Lewis previously operated one 20-inch mill, and in 2011 added a 30-inch mill and a 16-inch mill. This meant he more than doubled his capacity. The addition of the smaller mill also means he can do more specialized orders for smaller clients. Like Farmer Ground Flour, Wild Hive’s “new” equipment was actually purchased used; according to Lewis, used equipment is preferable, since factory standards are low so new equipment often needs significant work to get it functioning properly. Wild Hive Farm and Mill expects to continue expanding in 2012, opening to the public for tours and educational programming. Valley Malt is another processor who made great strides in scaling up in 2011. As one of only a handful of micro-malting facilities in North America, Valley Malt is a pioneer in grain processing in the Northeast. The business started in 2010 when owner Andrea Stanley and her husband, Christian, started looking into establishing their own micro-brewery using all local ingredients. What they quickly discovered was that locally-grown grains would need to be malted before brewing, and the closest malt-house—in Wisconsin—required a minimum order of 30 tons of grain. The Stanleys decided this was a gap that needed filling, and decided to become the first small-scale malt house in the Northeast. This past year, Valley Malt made some exciting additions to their business. One highlight is their Brewers Supported Agriculture program. Eight breweries bought shares of the field where Valley Malt’s barley is grown (the company works extremely closely with farmers like Klaus Martens to produce food-quality barley with appropriate characteristics for malting), and then received distributions of malt throughout the season. One participating brewer commented that adding Valley Malt’s product to their mash caused an immediate reaction to their senses. The aromas produced by the local malt were so distinct and delicious that brewers were taken aback. To Andrea, this highlights not only the growth in awareness for locally-produced grain products; it also affirms the need to make local products that are superior in quality. Like Farmer Ground Flour, Valley Malt expects continued growth in 2012. The company will shut down its equipment for the first two weeks of March to install a new system, which will allow them to increase production from 1 ton of malt per week to 4 tons weekly. This will allow Valley Malt to catch up, to some degree, to current demand. Re-building the regional grainshed has meant a lot of creativity and self-sufficiency. Christian Stanley, an engineer by training, designed the malt vessel for Valley Malt, and did the installation and mechanization work himself. At NOFA-NY’s winter conference in January, a workshop led by R.G. Bell, Tim Baty, and Robert Perry covered small-scale grain cleaning, storage, and milling; a major focus of the workshop was how small-scale equipment can be fashioned out of easily-accessible and re-purposed materials. Finally, growth in 2011 could be seen in the expansion of local-scale distilling in and around New York City. A number of new distilleries opened up this past year, many of whom proudly use local grains in their product. Stay tuned for Seasonal Updates Part 3 – Regional Grains Retail for more on local distilleries.