By Jennifer Wilhelm
New England is not currently known for its grain production. Due to topography and climate, growing grains — particularly small grains like oat, wheat and rye — has more recently been left to the Midwest, where land is flat and open. The forested and mountainous landscape in New England, including an abundance of large glacial erratics, does not lend itself to fields of grain. The short, wet growing season here also does not favor production of high-quality grains. However, grain growing has a long and storied history in the Northeast, and is now making a comeback.
“Corn production has been part of the Northeast’s Indigenous foodways for thousands of years, and small-scale grain growing — both corn and wheat — was integral to New Hampshire up until a century ago, which is evidenced by the many stone mill foundations found along our rivers, and the (few) water-powered mills still standing (including Sanborn Mills in Loudon),” says Sarah Cox, MOFGA-certified organic farmer at Tuckaway Farm in Lee, New Hampshire.
Subsistence farmers often planted corn; given its high yields and long shelf life, it was an important part of the home pantry. Farmers had many uses for ground corn including making porridge, fritters, cornbread, and “johnnycakes,” a corn-based pancake made with or without sugar. They also grew wheat, which could be milled at a local mill and was another important addition to the larder.
“As grain growing moved westward on a commercial scale, culinary grain infrastructure and knowledge faded out in New England by the 1920s,” says Cox. “Stone mills, which use a single stream to process flour that contains the full nutrition of bran, germ and endosperm, were replaced by roller mills that use separate streams to separate out and remove bran and germ, creating a more shelf stable but far less nutritious flour. Without access to local mills, and with the prevalence of cheap commodity flours from the Midwest on grocery store shelves, culinary grains produced in the Northeast disappeared until the recent resurgence of bringing grains into the local food movement.”
While grain production in New England today uses tens of thousands of acres, the Midwest uses tens of millions of acres to grow the majority of the country’s grain needs. Despite the challenges of topography, climate and limited infrastructure, a small but steadily increasing number of farmers are growing grains in New England today, and farmers are teaming up to support each other and the budding industry. The Northeast Grainshed Alliance is one such organization. The organization represents land in the northeastern United States as a unique region “with its own infrastructure and identity, in which people understand the benefits of growing and eating local grains, and products made with local grains are mainstream and accessible to all.”
In the Granite State, the second most forested state in the nation, known for its White Mountains National Forest, several farmers have joined forces to explore the feasibility of increasing grain production across the state and expand the “grainshed.” In 2021, Tuckaway Farm received planning proposal funding through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Value-Added Production Grant to explore the potential of a New Hampshire Grain Cooperative. They brought together a core team of growers and market partners to better understand the market demand, production possibilities and equipment needs of increasing grain production in New Hampshire.
“It’s important to emphasize that this reemergence of local and regional grains in the Northeast is not trying to replace large-scale commodity grains in the food system; rather, the value is in producing a non-commodity product that has its own unique place, flavors and story in the market and food system,” says Cox.
For Cox, who has been farming at Tuckaway Farm for 15 years, expanding into grain was a logical step that has evolved over time. At Tuckaway, where the Cox family has been farming for over 50 years, they grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, raise layer chickens, and manage a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and onsite farm store. For Sarah Cox, diversifying with grain production was inspired by the Maine Grain Alliance Kneading Conference, Cox’s personal interest in baking, and the family’s interest in a diverse farm operation that supports the local community.
Tuckaway Farm’s first experience with scaling up grain production emerged from conversations with chef David Vargas of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At Vida Cantina, Vargas wanted to integrate heirloom corn into his tortillas. Tuckaway Farm and two other farms began growing corn for Vargas, which resulted in Vida Tortilla: 100% New Hampshire-grown and -processed corn tortillas.
Tyler Murray of MOFGA-certified organic Granite Grains Farm was eager to team up with Cox and Big Scott’s Farm as one of the three Vida Tortilla farmers growing heirloom corn.
“It was hard to run a vegetable operation solo,” says Murray. “I decided to get into grain production because the machinery allows me to produce more as a one-person operation. Having the support of other farmers helped me make connections to buyers, and gives me access to processing equipment.”
While machinery may ease the physical challenges of farming, the upfront and maintenance costs associated with grain equipment can be a barrier to entry for new grain farmers. From tractors for planting to combines for harvesting to mills for processing, mechanized equipment can be costly.
“I have a very old 1983 combine. New equipment is fit for much larger farms and very pricey,” says Murray. “Grain cleaning ensures a higher-quality end product. Drying equipment ensures longer-term storage, which itself requires storage bins and space.”
That’s one reason why combining efforts through a farmer alliance makes sense to Murray and Cox.
“One of the biggest challenges is that reestablishing a resilient grain economy in New Hampshire involves rebuilding infrastructure that has been lost over two centuries — including appropriately-scaled field, harvest, post-harvest, milling equipment, and the coinciding technical knowledge for these tasks,” says Cox. “To this end, working in cooperation with other growers to share knowledge and equipment where possible, and to create shared markets, suits small-scale New Hampshire grain growing (and market farming as a whole), creating strong relationships that complement and boost each other’s growth.”
In 2022, Tuckaway Farm received a generous community donation to purchase a 26-inch New American Stone Mill that will greatly increase their efficiency and capacity to produce cornmeal and flour, and support other farmers with grain processing. They have plans to finish a milling and packing space in early 2024.
Currently, Granite Grains Farm sells whole grain to bakeries that have their own mills. To reach the brewery market, Murray has to travel to Connecticut to have the grain flaked. The new mill equipment at Tuckaway could save him time and money.
And Murray sees much opportunity when he looks towards the future. “I’m still learning,” he says of grain production. The more he and the other New England grain farmers learn and share knowledge, connections and equipment, the more likely this return to local grain production is to remain.
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.