Reflections from a Fledgling Grain Grower
Written by Christopher || 12/27/16
Grains are fascinating – they’re central to the creation of civilization, to the rural landscape, and to the calories we rely on. I touch and consume grains every day – the granola, sandwich, fried rice, and stout I consumed today all centered on different grains – but other than that, the story of grains is hard to participate in.
Grains are grown on an enormous scale, and, once harvested, most kernels head into commodity markets to be purchased by massive processing companies. Cargill is one of those processors, gobbling up enormous quantities of grains (and many other agricultural and non-agricultural commodities) to trade, ship, store, and process. Its dominance is obvious, as the company has consistently been the largest privately held corporation in America for decades.
This story of massive scale is especially true for grains, though it applies to all foods to some extent. In recent decades, the story of small scale has had a resurgence – small or local farmers, brewers, and butchers connecting consumers to the origins of their food. But few of them are working with grains, leaving the impression that ‘grain growing’ and ‘small’ just don’t go together.
When I realized the dissonance between the importance of grains and their lack of accessibility, I saw it as an exciting and enticing challenge. Can grains be grown and processed at a small or local scale? Is there an alternative to Cargill? Does anything change in the end product when they are grown differently?
One place I decided to start looking for answers was in my homebrew. So, I started researching the skill of raising cereal crops and planted a field of barley. In the 2.5 years since, I’ve continued experimenting and learning. So far, I’ve grown 25 varieties of barley, 2 varieties of buckwheat, oats, paddy rice, and corn at several different scales. I’ve harvested with machete, scythe, and combine, and gained a basic understanding of how you can, and can’t, grow grains on a small scale.
Growing Year 1
When I started, I only had experience growing vegetables and raising animals. I was working for local food processors and living on a goat farm in New England when I took my first plunge. The tractor work I was doing with Mr. Goat Farmer (a wise friend and mentor) primarily entailed moving goat shit from point A to point B and haying. Thus, the farm’s tractor equipment wasn’t particularly well suited to field prep. No plow was available, but the barley planting window was closing, so we borrowed a disc from a neighbor and disced up a ⅛ acre section of pasture.
This led to a large rectangle of relatively compacted, cut up sod. Perfect! I didn’t have access to any other options, so I ended up, ridiculously, picking out the large sod chunks and making a big pile to the side of the field. I spread a little compost, marked rows, and planted half with a push seeder and half with a broadcaster. I further subdivided the plot, planting half in 2 row, and half in 6 row.
The barley field was on the other side of the farm from where I lived. Getting there meant a 10 minute walk through an apple orchard, across goat pasture, over electric fencing, and past the sheep herd. I frequently, and anxiously, made the journey for the first few days, until the first leaves began poking up through the dirt.
The plants grew well for a while, but became overwhelmed by weeds when the grain started drying down and letting light through to the weeds. Looking back, there weren’t enough nutrients for the grain, the soil was too compacted, the weed seed bank too strong, and I planted too late.
Harvest was comical. Due to travel plans, I had a week to pull it off. The grain had already been ready for a bit, the weeds were high, and it rained most of the week. I modified my scythe to make harvest more efficient, and cut the grain. Friends joined me in going through the field to bundle the grain. We did our best to avoid the weeds, and ended up with a big tarp full of barley stooks (here is a far more beautiful stook of wheat).
I dried it out, stored it on a hammock, and tried to figure out threshing. Life got busy, and I ultimately only threshed a small quantity of what I had grown. Mice beat me to some of it, as my hammock wasn’t exactly an impenetrable grain silo.
I supplemented what I had threshed with some leftover seed to experiment with small malting test batches. I modified a fridge with stone shelf compartments and made a small kiln. The malt I made was pretty good, but the experience of malting and growing was amazing. It was exciting, challenging, and downright fun to grow grains, malt them, and then enjoy my beer.
Searching for Flavor
My grain growing journey led to work in the malting world, further research and experimenting, and a passion for making truly local beer possible. Eventually I co-founded a startup, Sprowt, to make malt and malting accessible to brewers by putting together the necessary knowledge, seeds, and equipment. We’ve been working hard to develop a small-scale, automated malting machine, and are now in the process of looking for beta testers in the Minnesota home brewing community.
In our work, we’ve realized that to really understand malting we need to have a broad grasp upstream and downstream: how grains are grown impacts how they are malted and how grains are malted impacts how they are brewed. Thus, my brewing (and now business) buddy, Mark, and I continued learning how to grow grains this past summer. We experimented at 3 different scales: tiny plots of heritage varieties, 3 acres with a farmer friend, and 10 acres contracted with another beginning grain grower.
Modern barley varieties can be limiting to a maltster interested in doing things differently. They malt well for adjunct beers, but haven’t been bred for all-malt brewing, nor for flavor. But, they’re the only seed currently available. You can read more about this in our article on Barley Varieties.
There are a number of efforts to revive heritage barley varieties, and the future looks promising for them. Excited by the possibilities, we requested our own selection from a seed bank and received small samples of varieties from around the world, predominantly bred at least before the 1940’s. We raised seedlings indoors in case we had poor germination rates and filled a local community garden plot with varieties that haven’t seen sunlight in a while.
The plants were fascinating to observe – the diversity of appearances was dramatic as they grew into our own little variety trial. Harvest was by machete, and involved carefully maintaining variety separation from the field through drying, threshing, cleaning, and storing.The whole process dramatically increased my interest in citizen science – writing down observations every few weeks and compiling a final report was fascinating, fun, and felt genuinely useful and important.
Searching through historic barley varieties for flavor is a bit crazy and ambitious for citizen scientists. It’s a chicken and the egg situation – no one has a large enough quantity of the varieties we’re researching to malt and brew, and it takes time and effort to grow a variety out before you can see how it tastes. What varieties are worth the effort? Research got us pretty far before planting, but at the end of the day it’s our own intrigue and enjoyment of the journey that will keep us going.
Are other home brewers interested in raising heritage varieties on a small scale? We’re interested in coordinating a citizen science project of brewers working together to revive heritage varieties together.
Tractors: Not Overrated
At the same time as our variety trial, we grew a single variety of barley at a larger scale: 3.3 acres. This is still teeny compared to most barley fields, but not something we could manage with hand tools anymore.
Tractors are incredible. The number of hours I spent crawling through the dirt and planting my first field were comical compared to those 3 acres we grew with a farmer friend outside of Minneapolis. Planting took 20 minutes, the wide reach of the grain drill rapidly planting our seed.
We didn’t make the same mistakes as last time – we tested our soil, spread fertilizer, and had the field properly prepared ahead of time. It worked, too! We grew organically, and had minimal weed problems throughout the season. Barley flies out of the ground, and shades weeds out with dense foliage by the time the ground is warm enough for most weeds.
Grain growing is both risky and low-key. It certainly takes a lot of preparation, but once the seed is in the ground, you’re mostly just waiting and occasionally checking on it. Stress comes and goes as summer thunderstorms race across the fields. Too much wind, rain, or hail can leave a field flattened and worthless in a minute. Our beginner’s luck held, and harvest went as smoothly as the rest of the season.
Farmer Dave’s John Deere combine flew through the field, leaving an organized line of straw behind. We loaded the grain into our new/old gravity wagon, and now it’s safely stored at a neighbor’s dairy farm.
It’s a tiny amount of grain compared to the corn and soybeans grown all around our field. But, it’s ours, and it sure makes good beer.
Working With Others
Our final attempt to learn about grain growing last season was with a fledgling grain grower a few hours west of us. He was growing 60 acres of a variety of grains for a variety of purposes, and another grain enthusiast connected us with him. We contracted 10 acres with him, agreeing before planting to purchase a set quantity of grain if it met certain quality conditions. Malting barley used to be purchased on the open market, but the amount of barley grown has dropped dramatically since the 1980’s. Today, malthouses need to contract their grain ahead of time with farmers to incentivize barley production. We went out mid season to admire the field as the wind played with the seed heads. It hadn’t dried down yet, but it still brought a new appreciation for the phrase amber waves of grain.
His season ended unfortunately. He didn’t have a combine, and hired a neighbor to come through with an older, small machine. They cut it first and left it in windrows to dry out further, much as I did with my scythe. The timing was bad, and rains came through for a whole week once the grain was on the ground, causing mold and pre-sprouting issues. The failed harvest eventually went to his flock of laying hens, but we were sad to never put some in our keg.
A Delicious Future
Farming is a hard thing to learn. It’s too often perceived as a simple skill, and something to be left for the pursuit of “greater” things. I think this is bullshit. The intricacies of understanding soil, crop rotations, machines, and many other topics make many farmers I know some of the smartest people I’ve met.
I’ve got a vast way to go in learning about farming, but I already feel a good foundation of understanding. I’m learning the lingo, how to navigate the agricultural supply world, and what does and doesn’t work. The big takeaways so far are about iteration, infrastructure, and community:
– One of the greatest challenges with learning how to farm is the time it takes to iterate. I can write software, test it, and iterate on it multiple times in a day. But the growing season comes around only once a year, so I have that one annual chance to get better at planting grains.
– Infrastructure makes everything easier. On a small scale, access to a scythe, compost, and a drill makes growing a few hundred pounds of barley easy and fulfilling. On a large scale, you’re not likely to break even if you need to hire a tractor, pay for storage, and buy seed every year. The preparation process becomes infinitely easier when you already have the equipment to pull it off.
– Learning and problem solving are much easier with the support of a community. It’s what makes home brewing special for so many people – if you’re confused or experimenting, there are people who will help or join you. Farming is no different! Harvesting would have taken infinitely longer if Farmer Dave wasn’t deftly adjusting settings and working the clutch.
Growing grains is very doable at a garden scale. You don’t need too much space to grow enough for several batches of beer, and I’ve enjoyed my brewing hobby even more now that I’m starting with seeds.
I also think it’s possible at a small/medium commercial scale. The equipment for growing is absolutely there, and a barley stalk doesn’t care if it’s surrounded by a foot, acre, or 10,000 acres of fellow Hordeum Vulgare plants.
The real challenge is processing the grain once it’s out of a small field. Grains aren’t like tomatoes – you don’t just pick, wash, and eat. They need to be malted or milled before another processor can actually work with them. Small millers and maltsters are on the rise, rediscovering what was once commonplace in communities around the country. Hopefully the trend continues, and we’ll be enjoying new flavors in genuinely local beer in the near future.