Farming Magazine - August, 2010

FEATURES

Wheat Revival

Growing High Quality Bread Wheat in New England
By Jan Sevene
Spring bread wheat ready for harvest.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Ellen Mallory, University of Maine, unless otherwise noted.

“Growing wheat in New England is not new. Producing high-quality bread wheat to support a growing interest in local foods is,” says Dr. Ellen Mallory, University of Maine (UMaine) extension specialist in Sustainable Agriculture. “An increased demand for bread wheat represents an increased opportunity in our region. Maine has a long history of producing grain, but it has been almost all animal feed. Right now the demand is for organic bread wheat.”

Vermont was seeing a similar significant interest. “In Vermont, we just had a very strong interest by consumers to buy local grains. It encouraged UVM and grain growers to focus more on growing food producers’ grains,” says Dr. Heather Darby, assistant professor at University of Vermont (UVM) extension, who had worked with other Maine extension agronomists in the past, primarily with grain for animal feed.

With the same goals, each agreed the time had come to research the viability of reviving organic wheat growing in New England. At a crop meeting hosted in Vermont, Darby and Mallory, along with Rick Kersbergen (UMaine Cooperative extension), decided to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic grant. Thanks to the recently launched USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative (a national program to help develop local and regional food systems and boost their economies), they were awarded $1.3 million—split equally between UMaine and UVM—to fund a four-year (2009-2013), in-depth research and study project headed by Mallory. Titled “Enhancing Farmers Capacity to Produce High-Quality Organic Bread Wheat,” the project objective is “to partner farmers, millers, bakers and researchers to share information and concerns and develop strategies for organic bread wheat production that satisfy multiple criteria: productivity, profitability, milling and baking quality and flavor.”

A portion of UMaine’s funds goes to an on-campus Agricultural Research Service (ARS) lab to support a student’s project (working with an ARS researcher) to evaluate the profitability and risk of regional bread wheat production.

Artisan bread from Quebec-grown wheat on display at the Première Moisson near Montreal, a bakery that works closely with a local mill.

A need for revival

Why was a regional in-depth study on growing wheat necessary, when according to Mallory, its history goes way back in New England? Mallory’s research indicated pretty much every New England state claimed it was the breadbasket of New England, including Maine—up to the mid-1800s. However, she cites disease, increased production in the West and reduced transportation costs (opening of the Erie Canal and the ensuing railroad boom) as the combination of factors that led to a steady decline in New England’s wheat production. As a result, there was a gradual loss of the basic information on how to produce bread wheat. Darby, also current treasurer of Vermont’s Northern Grain Growers Association (NAGA), says in Vermont there had been little research for about 20 or 30 years.

Mallory describes Maine’s need for a revival. “With a growing appetite for organic home-grown food, Maine is barely able to meet in-state demand for locally grown bread, due to a shortage of wheat. And increasingly, there are more and more millers and bakers looking for wheat they can’t find, and the wheat that is available often doesn’t have the quality that’s needed.”

Making connections

A major objective of the project is to make connections that allow farmers, millers, bakers and researchers to share information and concerns. “Farmers can’t grow commodity wheat in New England,” Darby says. “The goal of the project is to bring farmers together with end-users, to have a viable grain business in New England, driven by demand and production—to be sold locally to all of New England.”

“Currently,” Mallory says, “we have six farmers working with us directly on the project, either as members of our project advisory board or as hosts for our variety trials. Our advisory board also includes two millers and one baker. We expect to have many more farmers, millers and bakers involved in the project as it proceeds.”

Daniel Gosselin and Elisabeth Vachon explain to the group from Maine and Vermont how organic bread wheat fits well as an added enterprise on Daniel’s small organic dairy farm.

One baker, ahead of his time, had already connected with a wheat farmer in northern Maine. He highlights the fact his bread is made from Maine- grown wheat. That baker is Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Breads in Portland, who has used locally grown wheat for his bread for several years.

The connection between UMaine and UVM means that each contributes to the research effort. For instance, Mallory says, “We don’t know the good varieties. That’s one of our first initiatives, looking for varieties that grow well and taste well.” Here, Darby, with vital help from a Vermont farmer, brought much to the harvest table from previous field testing.

Cultivars adapted to the Northeast

From an earlier online survey put out as part of a USDA Northeast-Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (NE-SARE) grant, and under UVM’s project titled “Vermont’s Sustainable Agriculture Professional Development,” an interest in local grain production surfaced. From this evolved an attempt to educate farmers in the practice of breeding grain varieties.

In the spring of 2007, Darby teamed up with farmer and vice president of The Northern Grain Growers Association, John “Jack” Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vt. Lazor, with his wife Anne, operates an organic dairy farm that produces milk and a successful line of organic yogurt. He also grows wheat.

“I don’t have a huge wheat business. Personally I’m not interested in selling on a large scale,” he says. However, it was Lazor’s passion for the growing process that prompted his interest in partnering with Darby to research wheat breeding and restoration. Despite what he calls the lurking “perils and pitfalls” of wheat production (having grown wheat for 33 years), he says, “I’m very happy to share my knowledge with anyone who is interested. It is the type of agriculture I’d like to see more of.”

Actually in line with the new four-year joint objective, their challenge was creating their own organically managed small grain varieties, revive some heirloom varieties resistant to local diseases and suitable to the New England climate, reduce seed costs, and as Darby and Lazor stated, “bring new seed production enterprises to small farms in the Northeast.”

Along with Glover, Vt., farmer Seth Johnson, Darby and Lazor attended a brief, but intensive. course taught at Washington State University by its wheat and cereal breeder, Steve Jones. In the process, they gained valuable skills, beginning with choosing good parent varieties. Darby and Lazor then tested their new learned skills in Vermont, seeding 19 varieties of spring wheat. “The varieties were primarily chosen because we were looking at some heirlooms developed here in Vermont,” Darby says. “When developed back in the 1800s, they grew spring wheat ... it was more prevalent. We were able to find three heirlooms from Vermont, some from Vermont’s last well-known wheat breeder, Cyrus G. Pringle.”

“We brought back to life about 19 heirloom varieties. Started with 100 seeds each,” Lazor says. “Hand-harvested, the plots grew larger and larger. Last year, we had .25 acre or more of replicated plots and varieties.”

All planting was done at Butterworks Farm. Darby praises Lazor for his involvement as a working partner in the project. “It couldn’t have happened without him,” she says. “He was the impetus to make it go—and it still goes. Initiated at his farm, it has since expanded to other farms.”

Robert Beauchemin, owner and operator of Le Meunerie Milanaise milling facility in eastern Quebec, explains his milling process to group of farmers, bakers and researchers from Maine and Vermont. Foreground: Jack Lazor (Butterworks Farm) and Robert Beauchemin.

Knowledge gained

After two additional field days held at Butterworks Farm teaching farmers breeding skills and harvesttime strategies for selection, Darby summed up with two important benefits regarding their first attempt at cross-breeding:

  • It helped us make great networking connections with wheat breeding professionals. We gained knowledge that would have been impossible to get in Vermont—specifically from plant breeders focused on wheat. It really connected us to the folks that had the knowledge we wanted to learn. That was the primary benefit.
  • We learned all of these skills on how to propagate wheat and develop their own wheat varieties. However, learning what it involved, farmers realized it was not realistic for them to do. Time-consuming and requiring much care and practice, we learned it is more valuable for the farmers to have a roll in the selection process.

Darby explains, “They don’t have a say in what that variety is. Now, the farmers can select the type of wheat they like, so that over time they can develop their own variety. Less costly in the end, farmers will have a variety adapted to this area, not the West or Midwest, which is helpful to us with yields and pests.”

Learning beyond borders

Reaching worldwide to learn from those living in similar climates that successfully grow organic wheat, began last fall with a farmer exchange tour to Quebec (which grows over 30,000 acres of bread wheat). “There is a joint venture between a group of farmers, a miller and a bakery that has a number of stores in Montreal. They took us to visit them all, so we could see how it works. Having that experience was very helpful,” Mallory says.

“There’s a lot happening up there in Quebec,” Lazor adds. “There have always been combines and grains up there. It’s part of their culture. Grains never went away in their culture.”

A future tour is scheduled for Denmark. Mallory and husband, weed Ecologist Eric Gallandt, spent a year’s sabbatical in Denmark (a wheat-producing country)—she hosted by a soil scientist, he a Danish weed scientist with extensive experience in organic weed management techniques for small grains. Danish researchers, and farmers sharing their growing strategies, will help answer many of the Northeast farmers’ questions, such as: Are there better ways to manage weeds?

Educational outreach

The project, through annual farmer-to-farmer conferences and on-farm field days, will continually work at improving production strategies and build on the essential networking between all those associated with the food-growing process, all while contributing to strengthening the local economy. A final result will be a regional guide titled “Organic Wheat Production in New England,” filled with production information, project research data from farmer case studies, and a complete set of bulletins and fact sheets covering the entire four-year project.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Hampshire. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.