Against the Grain: Growing a Small-scale Business
By Susanne Reed
My family began produce farming several years ago. We were so excited to share our beans, tomatoes, corn, and melons with our local community.
What we quickly learned is that it’s much easier to grow produce than to sell it. We had a window of only a few days between when we picked the produce and when it had to be sold. If the produce didn’t sell, it spoiled and had to be fed to our farm animals. Although our animals enjoyed our losses, we definitely did not. We had to hustle every single day of the week to fulfill our community-supported agriculture (CSA) orders and sell produce at farmers markets, our own produce stand, and local stores. We were exhausted. While we didn’t mind being extremely busy, we also wanted to see more reward for our efforts.
So, planning for the upcoming season, we brainstormed ideas for a new product to complement our produce. We outlined the following criteria for this new product: It needed to have a longer shelf life than produce, be available to sell during winter months, be easy to store, be packaged based on orders, and have little competition in our area.
The winning product? Grain to make flour. We had enough land to grow grain, and we knew consumers could use flour in many ways. But we knew nothing about growing grain, so we spent weeks researching cultivars, planting and harvesting times, necessary equipment, governmental regulations, and milling options.
Which Grains to Grow?
We loved the idea of bringing back heirloom grains. At the top of our list of crops we wanted to grow were ancient grains, such as einkorn. Unfortunately, the seed for ancient grains is more expensive than our budget would allow. So, we crossed them off the list and considered more common, traditional grains that are used in many products.
We took that list to the farmers market and polled our customers for feedback. We found they wanted wheat, rye, cornmeal, and a gluten-free flour. We took those preferences to heart and ordered seeds from a neighboring farm that grows grain on a much larger scale. In addition to traditional wheat and rye seed, we bought an open-pollinated corn cultivar dating from the late 1800s. To create a rye-wheat blend, we chose triticale, a grain that naturally cross-pollinated with rye. For our gluten-free product, we selected a white sorghum.
Reaping What We Sowed
We prepared 9 acres of our land to grow grain. With the right equipment, preparing ground for planting is easy. Because we couldn’t afford the modern versions of the right equipment, we opted for much older ones. While not shiny and pretty, they got the job done.
Plowing the field turns over the soil and loosens it, which prepares the ground for seeding and allows the seeds to grow without competition from other vegetation. We learned that most grains compete well with weeds, which is lucky for us because we don’t use chemicals or sprays. We applied an organic compost manure. We disced the field several times using our old-school 8-foot disc for a few months before planting. We planted wheat and rye in fall to give them time to produce a strong root system for growing in spring. When spring arrived, we planted the sorghum and corn. Then, we waited, watched, and waited some more, until finally the seeds germinated and the plants popped out of the ground and grew to almost 5 feet tall over several months. We faced typical frustrations during this period of gradual growth, most notably after the deer and turkeys discovered our new crops. A few scarecrows later, the crops were back on track and flourishing.
Finally, in midsummer, the grains were ready to harvest. Similar to hay, grain seems to mature on the hottest days of the year.
To tell when the grain is ready for harvest, my husband uses the “bite into the kernel method.” For those of you who don’t want to use that method, understand that grain must contain less than 20 percent moisture content when harvested. So, when you snap it, break it, or test it in some other way, the kernels need to be hard — not soft, moist, or doughy.
Once we established that the grain was ready, we began harvesting with combines. We purchased a John Deere Model 30 pull-type combine at an auction and got it to work with a little bit of love and some new paddles. The combine cuts and separates the grain from the heads of the plant, putting it into a hopper. From the hopper, the combine transfers the kernels to a grain wagon, and then we load them into a grain bin for storage. We placed diatomaceous earth in the bin to keep unwanted insects from destroying our harvest. Diatomaceous earth is an all-natural way to kill insects, and you can buy a food-grade version that’s edible.
Separate the Grain from the Chaff
The less grain is processed, the better. In other words, the fewer steps from field to table, the healthier the final product. Many flours you find at the grocery store are heavily processed. Natural nutrients are removed, and minerals and vitamins are added back in. These added minerals and vitamins aren’t equivalent to the original ones found in the grains. Even the lightest natural grains and flours aren’t typically as white as the all-purpose flours found in grocery stores, meaning that many store-bought flours are bleached. Bleaching removes healthful components from the natural product. In contrast, our flour undergoes only a few simple steps: growing, harvesting, cleaning, and milling — that’s it.
After the harvest is finished, it’s time to clean the grain. We remove the kernels from the bin and run them through our grain cleaner. This cleaning process removes the diatomaceous earth and unwanted debris that remain after harvest. The cleaners also separate any seeds with imperfections. We could afford to purchase two cleaners, both of which we found at antique stores: an A.T. Ferrell & Co. Clipper seed cleaner from the 1800s, and a Sears, Roebuck and Company cleaner from the 1940s. These implements are so old that they’re hand-crank only. So we wouldn’t have to spend hours upon hours hand-cranking them, my husband attached an old Maytag wringer washer motor to each of them.
Once they’re cleaned, we grind the seeds in our Pleasant Hill Grain mill, the only modern piece of equipment we’ve acquired. Much of our budget went toward this mill. It can process 50 pounds an hour and delivers the stone-ground product we and our customers desire in a more efficient time frame. We bought the commercial version because we wanted to sell some of our flour as well as use it in our daily lives. However, if you’re only growing grain for personal use, many noncommercial flour mills can be purchased at stores or online for a lower price.
Once it’s ground, we sift the flour and package it. Throughout this entire process, we follow the rules set forth by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The government is quite involved with farmers who process crops to sell to the public. For example, if a farmer wants to cut a watermelon and sell it in two halves at a farmers market, the USDA needs to approve the processing, or cutting, station. Because we were processing the grain into flour rather than selling whole grains, we needed certification.
We believe this is a good thing. While we don’t always want the government involved in our business, we do want our customers to know we’re following the best practices for producing their food in a clean, safe environment. The government has spent many years developing strict guidelines that give both the consumer and the farmer confidence in the product.
To create our mill, we insulated an old storage shed on our property and followed all steps outlined by the USDA. Regulations included everything from having our water tested, to installing a washing station with hot and cold water, to setting up proper storage.
Once we received our approval certification, we began processing and packaging our flour. We took our flour to local farmers markets and eagerly waited for the product to sell out. Unfortunately, sales were low. We probably sold just two bags of flour each week at each market. This wasn’t what we had imagined many months earlier when we planted the grain. Unwilling to give up on our idea of using grains to extend our season and product line, we decided to retool our plan and begin creating value-added items — meaning we’d package our flours into food mixes that our customers would find easy to use.
We settled on just two items to kick off our value-added product line. These were the products we’d enjoyed the most ourselves, at home: wheat pancake mix and rye flour sugar cookies.
To our great pleasure, customers almost immediately started buying our pancake mix, and our homemade cookies sold out each week. We had repeat customers — a sign they truly enjoyed the products. The key to selling our flour was to make products that helped simplify the lives of our busy customers.
We’re now focused on growing our line of value-added products using our gluten-free flour and cornmeal. If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting process and we’ll learn a lot along the way.
Final Tips for Growing Grain
Even if we were unable to sell our flour products, our family would’ve continued to grow our own grain and enjoy it daily. Grains can store for a long time — well over a year — before they need to be ground. Knowing where your food originates and how it was grown can be rewarding.
If you’re interested in growing your own grain, we recommend that you start small and take the time to consider the types of grains you and your potential customers will enjoy most. Start with a grain you know and use often. Don’t let not having the right equipment stop you. Many times, you can rent or borrow equipment from another farmer. Get excited knowing you’re creating something from start to finish. Do your research and ask questions. But most of all, have fun.
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