Aroostook Grains

Summer 2009

Spring Growth Conference 2009

Matt Williams, whose core farm principle is to help build the food community of Maine, discussed his experiences with growing organic grains for a decade and processing his and others’ organic grains for five years at his Aurora Mills & Farms in Linneus, in Aroostook County. Some 40,000 to 60,000 acres of small grains grow in Aroostook, primarily barley (half of which is used for malt) and oats.

The County has a “fair amount” of combines – including old ones that have been sitting around and are “perfectly adequate,” said Williams. (Growers were advised to make sure used combines had been operated regularly so that bearings hadn’t rusted due to lack of lubrication.)

Williams stores grains in 2,100-bushel tanks. He prefers the cone shape “because you don’t have to get in and sweep it to clean it.”

He said that growers have to understand the particulars of raising, threshing, drying and storing grains. For example, both winter and spring wheat can germinate in the head during wet weather, but winter wheat has little to no dormancy so it tends to germinate more often. Growers need to produce grain with a particular protein concentration and a “falling number” in the high 200s to mid-300s. The falling number test, measured by dropping a ball bearing through a column of flour and water, ensures the absence of alpha-amylase, which is produced when a seed starts to germinate. The presence of alpha-amylase will prevent protein coagulation. The minimum falling number for bread making is 250.

In 2008, after a wet late July and August, Williams had to harvest his winter wheat at 24 percent moisture and dry it to 14 percent for storage. “You have to have the ability to do this if you’re in the food-grade grain business.” An alternative in a wet year would be to wait for the weather to dry later in the season and then harvest the more mature grain for feed.

Williams noted that Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Vermont had designed a miniature, portable grain dryer “that anyone can build at home.”

Growers also need a way to warm the product in storage to avoid condensation when outside temperatures increase in the spring. “It takes a 10 degree F temperature difference for moisture to migrate from one point to another in solids,” said Williams. He heats his storage tank with a biomass boiler that can burn corn or wood pellets, or weed seed and other material separated from his grain. He also has a backup propane heater that he hasn’t had to use yet.

Also, grain must be kept below 120 F to be suitable for baking.

Regarding growing grains, Williams said that he always undersows his grain crop with clover, because of the limited availability of manure for soil fertility in Aroostook County, and because of neighbors’ complaints about the smell of manure. He bales the clover before any weeds in it go to seed and leaves the bales around the fields, out of the way. Before sowing his next cereal crop, he spreads about 3 tons of dry matter per acre over his fields by putting the baled clover through a bale processor, which requires more than 100 hp and 1,000 rpm to run. He still uses a limited amount of poultry manure.

Williams plants grains into a firm seedbed. “The firmer the seedbed, the better the germination. Weeds come up more evenly,” too, allowing for better weed control.

He double plants grains, sowing 100 pounds of seed per acre in one direction and another 100 pounds in another direction, using a 20-year-old air seeder. This ensures a quick canopy closure. He weeds with a Lely finger weeder (or, occasionally, a rotary hoe followed by a Lely).

Williams aims for five to seven days (depending on the weather) between the time a seedbed is prepped and the time he plants, “because I want the weeds in the top inch of soil where most weeds are coming from to have a good chance to get started. If I’m giving them five to seven days, and my crop will be up in four to five days, that gives me a week to 10 days of germination of weeds that I can take out aggressively, without damaging the crop, with a Lely cultivator.”

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