Small Scale Grain Farming

Local farms and food are well into their renaissance across the country. The demands now extend far beyond the sweet corn, apple and pumpkin-centric rural excursions of the 20th century. Today people are seeking foraged ramps and mushrooms, odd varieties of broccoli and squash and a vast offering of interesting greens. Grains on the other hand have been slower to resurge, and for understandable reasons. For one, a freshly picked strawberry is clearly superior to any supermarket offering, but the same comparison cannot easily be made for grains. Secondly, its quite difficult to farm grains on a small scale especially in the economic world we live in today.

On my family's farm in Minnesota part of the trick is figuring out how to use massively oversized equipment on small lots. Setup time laughably exceeds run time, and our yearly supply only covers a few feet in depth of a storage bin. Here our neighbor Bruce Strand is making a turn as he annihilates our 9 acre popcorn crop with his 6 row head on a John Deere combine. This was his last task to end the season after harvesting about 1000 acres of crops elsewhere. 

This is the kind of machine available commercially today, but it's impractical and financially crippling to smaller growers. They have to resort to shopping estate sales and craigslist, sometimes even scavenging old building sites for discarded implements. 

This year in New York's Hudson Valley we had 4 acres of popcorn grown at Kelder's Farm. Unlike Minnesota there aren't combines and semi trucks humming along everywhere you look. Fields are cut into forests or relegated to river valleys. Everyone uses third and fourth hand equipment, and very few have even that. Chris Kelder runs a U-Pick farm mostly of fruits and vegetables but he is able to handle the popcorn planting and cultivation for us. When harvest time comes though there's no way around it: You need a combine. Fortunately neighbor David Schoomaker (a 12th generation farmer!) recently bought a 'new' one, a 30 year old John Deere with a 4 row head. Even that makes quick work of our small acreage.  

After harvest wraps up comes the tricky task of drying, cleaning, and storing the grain, something I will write about at a later date. And finally to market. But who is the customer and are they interested? Small scale grain has few advantages over commercially available products. Farm subsidies don't help this reality. Until that changes consumers are going to have to buy into the story to become enthusiastic. In the meantime companies like ours can choose to incorporate small grain into our supply stream and absorb what problems and inconveniences may come with it. For us that means a lot more hand cleaning and inspecting. For the consumer it means their favorite popcorn has a bit more added value.

If you are interested in learning how to solve some of your own small scale grain processing problems The Organic Grain Grower by Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm is a good resource to start with. 


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