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G Force

Going with the grain

(Kara Manton)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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WHO
Ben Lester
WHAT
The farmer, founder of the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA, and owner of Wheatberry Bakery in Amherst, will be copresenting a workshop titled Animal-Powered Community Grains at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Summer Conference this month.
WHERE
Aug. 12-14 at UMass-Amherst. www.nofasummerconference.org, 413-230-7835.

Q. Community Supported Agriculture programs are very popular for vegetables. Why did you start a grain CSA?

A. Being avid members of a vegetable CSA and a meat CSA for years, we were naturally interested in the possibilities behind the concept. Commodity prices for wheat and flour tripled in 2008, so we started imagining the possibilities.

Q. Was taste part of it?

A. That ended up factoring in more and more as we went along. Most of the grain you buy is bred for high yield and chemical production tolerance, not taste or nutrition. But as we started experimenting with the older varieties, we discovered that the taste was a huge bonus. It is incorrectly assumed that wheat is wheat, and oats are oats. That simply isn’t true.

Q. Is freshness really a factor when you’re talking about grains?

A. Yes, particularly when it comes to flour. It turns out there are very flavorful, sweet, nutty oils in grains like wheat, spelt, and rye. As soon as you break them out of the berries they evaporate. Most of the flour found on the grocery store shelf is months, if not years, old.

Q. Do many of your CSA members mill grains themselves?

A. About half of our members have their own mills but you can also use a mill we have here at the bakery for self service. You can buy a home mill for about $50, with good quality electric ones starting at about $200. At our bakery we fresh mill about 20 to 30 percent of our grains.

Q. How much does a grain share cost?

A. $375 for 2 bushels of grain - about 110 pounds - which people pick up once a year. Last year we had 119 members.

Q. That’s a lot of grain. Does it fill up a car’s back seat?

A. It’s not as big as you think. Grain is dense and heavy, so it doesn’t take up a lot of room. A full share will fill two bushel baskets each with approximately five 10-pound bags. It’s generally enough grain for two or three meals for a week for a family.

Q. Which grains are the most popular?

A. Emmer is very popular. It’s very easy to use, and very tasty. We have a strong focus on older wheats, the so-called “ancient grains.’’ This year we’ve added barley and flax to the wheat, spelt, and rye we already offer. A share has between 10 to 15 crops. We also include dried beans, because they are a storage plant. Anything that’s a seed - that’s hard, dry, storable, and delicious - that fits into our definition of grain.

Q. Was it difficult to get Massachusetts farmers to grow grains?

A. Initially, but the momentum has really been building. We started with two farms, but by the second year, we were up to four farms.

Q. Can a New England farmer make money on grains if he doesn’t have thousands of acres and the giant harvesting equipment that Midwestern farmers have?

A. There are certainly some advantages to being in the Midwest. The dry weather there is good for grain. Large, flat fields make it easy to mechanically plant and harvest. But the new equipment is very adaptable to our small New England farms. It’s still cheaper to buy grain from the Midwest, but our advantage is being direct to market.

Q. What grains are undervalued?

A. Corn has tremendous variety. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different varieties. In the CSA we have a yellow corn, Nothstine Dent, that’s from the 1930s and has a sweet nutty taste. Mandan Bride comes in every color - blue, red, yellow, white and makes beautiful flour. Some varieties we have are very hard, good for grits. Some are better for muffins, and corn breads.

Q. Do your bakery customers notice when you use fresh milled local grains?

A. All the time. We’ve been baking a “100 percent Local Loaf,’’ which is very popular. We’re about to offer a new bread called “Multitown, Multigrain,’’ which has multiple grains from multiple towns around here. We also have a local bran muffin and a local corn muffin. Everyone comments about how unique and delicious these products are. The driving thing has always been taste and quality. It’s more work, but good food isn’t easy.

D.C. DENISON

Interview has been condensed and edited. D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

WHO
Ben Lester
WHAT
The farmer, founder of the Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA, and owner of Wheatberry Bakery in Amherst, will be copresenting a workshop titled Animal-Powered Community Grains at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Summer Conference this month.
WHERE
Aug. 12-14 at UMass-Amherst. www.nofasummerconference.org, 413-230-7835.