The challenge of small-scale grain farming

Went to an organic farm this weekend - Organic spelt

Photo by storebukkebruse via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Slate recently ran an interesting piece about the difficulties faced by farmers seeking to grow grain crops on a small scale. As Alastair Bland describes,

In one minute, a single person driving an industrial-grade combine through a wheat field can harvest almost 1 ton of grain—about enough food to provide adequate calories to four people for a year. In the same amount of time, California farmer Reed Hamilton, plodding through his tiny wheat field in the Sierra Nevada foothills on his 1950s All-Crop 66 combine, harvests just 50 pounds.

“My operation is barely profitable,” says Hamilton, who leases a 30-acre plot of land in Grass Valley, not far from Sacramento. But he believes dwindling petroleum resources—which conventional farms use directly and indirectly for synthetic fertilizers, operation of machinery and irrigation systems, receiving supplies, and delivering their products around the world—make the industrial food producers that currently feed most of America unsustainable, and he thinks a worldwide shift to local-level food production systems is inevitable.

Hamilton is not alone. Across the country, hundreds of growers have challenged the forces of economics and convention by launching small-scale grain farms and selling their products at local bakeries and farmers markets. “Wheat is finally catching up with lettuce and heirloom tomatoes in the local foods movement,” says Steve Jones, a Washington State University wheat breeder whose department has sent heirloom seeds to startup farms from Los Angeles to Vermont to Alaska. But will local grains ever be as successful and ubiquitous as local fruits and vegetables?

The full piece is an interesting read — find it here — though it focuses more on the current economic obstacles to widely growing grains on a smaller farms than the many reasons to do so.

For some Wisconsin success stories, check out my earlier posts on Lonesome Stone Milling and their collaboration with Madison Sourdough Company to bring Turkey Red Wheat back to the Badger State, along with my posts on Death’s Door Spirits and Bloom Bake Shop, both of which make extensive use of organic Wisconsin grains in their products.

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