Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Small Scale Grain Farming

A lot of people like to think that small, local farms are the future. That may be, but much of the small farm movement to date has been centered on annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants, or small-scale animal husbandry. Grains have always been the central part of human agriculture, and it's very hard under the current model to be a profitable small-scale grain farmer, even with rising oil prices, as this article points out:
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?

Small-scale grain farmers who sell locally face unique challenges. For one thing, local wheat and other grains lack much of the visceral appeal of local lettuce and tomatoes. Local produce has found a market beyond hard-core environmentalists because of its taste: Anyone will tell you that a local, ripe, in-season strawberry tastes far superior to an off-season strawberry from a gigantic, far-flung conventional farm. But with grains, flavor differences are usually subtle, and it’s a stretch to argue that how a kernel of wheat is handled will significantly affect how it tastes when baked into a loaf of bread. Locally grown fruits and vegetables can be harvested fresher and riper than conventional produce, since the latter must be able to survive cross-country or even international transportation—but grains, dried and packed in sacks, are immune to the rigors of travel. Thus, whether rice or wheat comes from across the ocean or across the road has little impact on its flavor.

Yet ironically, local grains tend to be more expensive than local produce, relative to their supermarket counterparts. One reason for this is the need for specialized equipment, much of it costly and cumbersome, to clean and process grains. In the production of most grains, each seed’s hull must be removed as the first step in readying the product for sale. A centrifuge is often used to separate the heavy kernels from the light hulls, which an aspirator may suck upward and out of the heap. The kernels are sorted by size and quality, too, with broken seeds often reserved for livestock. Eventually, some grain products are milled into flour, while a coarser size setting of the grinding stones can produce “cracked” grains. Though industrial-sized processing facilities are available to serve many grain farms in a given region, they often require minimum batch loads that small farmers can’t meet.
Going Against the Grain. Small-scale grain farms are the next wave of the locavore movement. But can they actually make a profit? (Slate) And farmers are taking steps to deal with a changing climate, despite the fact that many of them don't belive in climate change:
The key to feeding 7 billion people in a post-climate-change world will be diversity of crops, which will help ensure resilience. To take the example of the farm my brother works, a dry year might see a better crop of sweet potatoes while a wet year promotes the growth of cereal crops. Weather is always changeable and unpredictable in the long term, which means a farmer must take good care of the soil so that the soil can take good care of the farmer when the weather turns challenging.

In other words, many American farmers—even those who would question whether climate change is man-made—are already doing exactly what efforts to combat climate change would require: precision agriculture to cut back on fossil fuel use, low or no-till farming, cover crops, biodigesters for animal waste, and the like. The key to reaching farmers is bringing them practices that improve their farms. "If you can help me deal with weather variability," Miller says, "I can probably adapt to climate variability."

"You've got so much to do anyway, trying to figure out rotations and moving animals and crops through and taking good care of your land and making enough money,” says my brother. “It's unclear what the point of talking about climate change would be." Or as I would put it: If many farmers are doing the right thing anyway, does it matter why?
BONUS: Where it all started: Farming got Hip In Iran Some 12,000 Years Ago, Ancient Seeds Reveal (NPR)

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