Against the Grain: Alprilla Farm Revives the Lost Art of Growing Wheat on a Small Scale
PHOTOS BY PAUL CARY GOLDBERG
Mention the town of Essex to a local food lover and clam shacks probably spring to mind. Amber waves of grain likely don’t. And for good reason: Massachusetts hasn’t been much of a grain-growing region for the last 200 years.
“There are lots of reasons not to grow grain here,” notes Noah Kellerman, who grew up in Essex at Alprilla Farm and now runs a vegetable farm on that land. “As early as the opening of the Erie Canal, and even before then, grain production was shifting west because of the economies of scale. The longer you can drive a combine in a straight line, the wider a combine you can use—and the more productive that an hour of the operator’s time becomes.” It’s also a little easier to grow grain and store it in a dry climate.
Nonetheless, Kellerman decided it was in his land’s best interest to bring some grain crops back into the mix.
“Vegetables are my big cash crop, but growing them year after year is very hard on the land,” he explains. Because the earth is constantly being disturbed, the soil’s organic matter and texture break down quickly and farmers must continuously add nutrients back in to support the high-energy demands of growing produce.
So about four years ago, Kellerman began growing wheat and barley to diversify his crop rotation while organically enriching his land’s heavy clay soil. He now plants various vegetables for two or three years on each plot at the farm, then follows this cycle with a fall planting of Warthog, a hardy red winter wheat out of Ontario.
“It’s not a very sexy name, but it’s disease-resistant and sprouting-resistant which is important in a wet climate to being able to harvest for bread quality,” says Kellerman. “And the flour is delicious.”
When the wheat begins to sprout in the spring, Kellerman plants clover, a nitrogen-boosting ground-covering plant, beneath it. “The clover gets established in the shade of the wheat, because weeds don’t like the shade but clover can take it,” he says. “When the wheat matures, I harvest it and find a beautiful stand of clover, which does a beautiful job of improving soil texture. And once I finally plow down the clover, it makes the next crop of vegetables even healthier.” The farm annually grows about two acres of wheat in this manner, and Kellerman, says “it helps us tremendously ever year.”
A less-versatile and somewhat trickier crop, barley is planted as crop rotation allows. With a heavy head of grain, barley can easily break the stalk when it gets wet or hit with wind, notes Kellerman. “It then rots on the ground because you can’t get at it to harvest it.” Vegetables also leave too many nutrients in the soil which then can cause the barley to fall over. As a result, the farm is only “growing barley as we’ve been breaking into new fields” to make sure there isn’t excess fertility for the crop, says Kellerman. “So we’ve sort of reached our full size, where we are cycling through the same land rather than opening up new sod.”
A Worthwhile Heritage
Given 10,000 to 12,000 years of evolution and farmer selection, heritage wheats are well suited to thrive in organic soils and the extreme weather seen more frequently with climate change, according to Eli Rogosa. The biodiversity researcher has worked with the European Union, UMass Amherst and other groups to preserve and establish heirloom wheat grains originally from the Middle East and Europe into modern agriculture.
“Modern wheat has been bred to be dependent on chemicals,” notes Rogosa, who sells flour made from heritage Einkorn wheat online through the Heritage Grain Conservancy website. “Heritage wheat is about four to five feet tall, whereas modern wheat is dwarfed so it won’t collapse under its own weight from intense agrochemical fertilization. They are like completely different plants.”
Because old wheat varieties are so tall, they have about 500 times the surface area and extensive root systems, all evolved over millennium in organic soil across periods of natural climate extremes, says Rogosa. “They’re consequently more resilient. They can reach moisture in lower soil levels during droughts, and they don’t collapse after heavy rains.”
Moreover, you can liken the diversity in the taste of heritage wheats to the great array of coffee varieties, she says.
“Plenty of wheats evolved in countries with climates similar to New England or Massachusetts,” says Rogosa, including some French wheats that are “really delicious.” She notes that Rouge du Bordeux, a heritage wheat beloved by French artisan bakers for its rich flavor, was grown here back in the 1800s. So “although it’s delightful that Kansas is growing wheat, there’s no reason we can’t do it ourselves,” she says.
At Alprilla Farm the wheat harvest typically occurs during the second week of July. The first year, Kellerman gathered a bunch of friends, who went at the crop with sickles. “We harvested the wheat the very, very old-fashioned way—bent over like people in a [Jean-François] Millet painting, he says. “It was back-breaking work, and you suddenly understood why the entire population used to spend all their hours trying to get enough calories to stay alive. It took forever.”
Since that first wheat crop, Alprilla Farm has relied on a 1950s tow-behind combine to easily harvest its grains. “It’s funny: What would have been state-of-the-art in 1950s, like our combine, is now so small as to be completely obsolete on an industrial farm,” says Kellerman. “There have been so many changes in scale in the last 100 years that what’s considered big is all very relative.”
Grain crops must be harvested as soon as they’re physiologically mature—which in New England means the grain crops often come in damp. So at Alprilla Farm they go into a bin with a perforated bottom in order to dry them. “We got a couple old blowers off a dead furnace from a friend who works in the HVAC industry and we use them to blow air up through the bottom of the bin for as long as it takes.” The wheat and barley will dry out quickly if humidity is low that week, but sometimes the process can take three weeks or more.
Once the harvest is dry, it must be threshed, a process that separates the grain seeds from the stalk or straw. The remaining dirty mix of small debris and seeds (called chaff) is then run through a seed cleaner, which winnows it down to just the clean grain. Alprilla Farm then grinds the grain in an 8” commercial stone mill, which can produce 30 or 40 pounds an hour.
The farm also grows heirloom flint corn for cornmeal and polenta. Like the wheat and barley, this corn is harvested upon maturity. Kellerman notes that the ears of corn are then set aside in the hayloft until they’re good and dry, before being run through a corn sheller borrowed from a neighboring farm. Alprilla Farm then makes corn meal in the same mill used to grind its other grains.
Freshly Ground Products
In 2014, Alprilla Farm produced 6,000 pounds of flour—with yields in some fields on par with industry standards. Bakers can buy the flour at farmers markets and also through a few local retailers. A&J King, a bakery in Salem, also buys some flour to use in its baked goods. And, as of last year, the farm began offering wheat flour as part of a fall grain CSA. Shareholders receive two to four pounds of freshly ground flour, along with a couple of pounds of the farm’s beans and the occasional bag of freshly ground cornmeal, every other week from the third week of October to Christmas.
The farm doesn’t see much profit from its barley. “But we did have a lot of fun with it last year,” says Kellerman. “We sent it all to be malted at Valley Malt in Hadley and Cape Ann Brewing Company [in Gloucester] used it to make a beer. We then traded a few kegs for a pig roast.”
The farm’s freshly ground cornmeal is a completely different product than what you find in the supermarket, “even the whole-grain high-quality stuff,” says Kellerman. “When it’s first ground, it smells like sweet corn,” he says. “It’s a really special thing; within a few days, it’s not the same product any more. Once people try it, suddenly there’s a market for it.”
Growing Local Production of Grains
Although Kellerman has enjoyed success with small plantings of wheat and other grains, he’s quick to stress that “we’re not revolutionizing the way that Essex County eats; we’re just one small farm.” But he does hope that he may inspire other farmers to experiment with grains as part of a beneficial crop-rotation strategy and to consider how they all might work together to reap the benefits of these new crops.
Farms make a lot less per acre in any given year when they grow grain as opposed to vegetables, notes Kellerman. “So for a lot of small farms that are tight on space, it’s a tough sell.” That said, when compared with vegetables, grains require little tending to yield good results. “You just plant them and then don’t do anything until it’s time to harvest,” says Kellerman. “And even working a commercial mill, I’m not running my machinery most of the time. If other farms in the area got into grain, we could share a lot of equipment and create a grain-processing co-op.”
Where to Buy Local Grains
Wheat flour, cornmeal, and dried beans are available through the farm’s fall grains CSA.
They are also available at the following retail locations:
Cape Ann Farmers Market, Gloucester
Coastal Greengrocer, Ipswich
Common Crow Natural Market, Gloucester
The Cave, Gloucester
Utopia Farmstand, Manchester-by-the-Sea
Vidalias, Beverly Farms
Four Star Farms
Cornmeal and an array of whole berries, grains, and flours are available via an online shop.
They are also available through the following retailers:
American Provisions, South Boston
City Feed and Supply, Jamaica Plain
Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge
Lettuce be Local, lettucebelocal.com
Massachusetts Local Food Cooperative, masslocalfood.org
Mei Mei Restaurant, Boston
Pete & Jen's Backyard Birds, Lincoln
South End Formaggio, Boston
Springdell Farm, Littleton
Volante Farms, Needham
Heritage Grain Conservancy
Einkorn grain, flour, and sprouted flour are available via the online shop.
Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain Share
Small grains and flours, heirloom and popping corns, and heritage beans are available through this winter CSA with pickups in the Boston area. The CSA selections are grown by farmers in Hadley, Hardwick, and Gill (as well as by several farmers in Maine who fill in the gap for crops not produced in Massachusetts).
Genevieve Rajewski wants to take some baking classes to be worthy of our local flours. Read more of her writing about food, animals and science at www.genevieverajewski.com.
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.