Wheat farming regains footing in WMass

HADLEY - Bank officer turned vodka entrepreneur Paul J. Kozub has added another line to his resume: wheat farmer.

Given the size of his crop, wheat gardener might be a better description.

"It's not that big," acknowledges Kozub, referring to the one-acre patch that could yield enough wheat for 500 cases of vodka. "But it's a good start."

In backyards, front lawns and gardens across the Pioneer Valley, nearly 100 other wheat fields are sprouting, representing a potential renaissance for a grain that was once a staple of farming in New England.

No major crop has disappeared from the region, then made a comeback. But a combination of market economics and the Pioneer Valley's grow-your-own ethos has propelled the region to the forefront of a trend watched by farming experts in Western Massachusetts and across the nation.

"It's a very exciting development," said Judith F. Gillan, director of New England Small Farm Institute, a prime supporter of the wheat-growing experiment. "Customers at local bakeries would love to be spending their money on bread made from locally grown grain."

Once an essential crop of New England farmers, wheat production dwindled dramatically in the early 20th century, replaced by corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other plants better suited for the region's harsh climate and rocky, sandy soil.

Supermarkets and bakeries received shipments of wheat from the Midwest and cultivation was left to niche businesses or historical sites like Old Sturbridge Village. But with prices fluctuating wildly in the past year, bakers, restaurant owners and food enthusiasts are rediscovering the mixed joys of wheat cultivation in an area once dubbed the breadbasket of New England.

The revival was highlighted by a conference at Hampshire College last year featuring several key proponents, including Jonathan C. Stevens and Cheryl L. Maffei, owners of the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton.

The upshot: About 100 experimental test plots are being cultivated by farms, bakers and others this summer.

The idea is not to re-establish wheat as a dominant crop, but gradually introduce it back into rotation, Maffei said. "This is a five-year project, and we're in the first year," she said.

Perched on a hill near the Smith College campus, the Hungry Ghost has its own knee-high wheat patch waving in the breeze outside the front door.

The vagaries of the wheat market have been especially evident at the Hungry Ghost, where Stevens and Maffei have struggled to keep prices down despite steadily escalating expenses. A year ago, the bakery paid about $23 for a 50-pound bag of organic white flour; six months later, the cost was $32; by January, it reached $50.

Meanwhile, the price of the Hungry Ghost's sourdough organic bread inched up from $4.50 to $5.

By growing wheat locally, bakers can insulate themselves from price shocks and avoid other expenses - especially gasoline - involved in cleaning, milling and shipping the product from the Midwest.

But if the upside of this new wave of wheat farming was obvious to Stevens and Maffei, the pair acknowledges they initially underestimated the difficulty.

One obvious hurdle is the climate, with the same long winters and unpredictable springs that soured New England's colonial farmers on wheat production.

Plus, wheat itself is no picnic to grow; the grain comes in dozens of varieties, with varying characteristics and growing requirements.

Attesting to the crop's long absence, the region also lacks infrastructure to mill, store and market the product once it is produced, said Gillan, the director of the small farm institute.

To shorten the learning curve, Stevens and Maffei not only gave out free seeds to participants, but are helping would-be growers nurse their small crops. Several area businesses, including the Wheatberry Bakery and Cafe in Amherst, are also playing prominent roles in the grow-your-own movement.

In late August, the area's first wheat harvest will be conducted, albeit on a miniature scale; the results will be analyzed for use next year, Stevens said.

He credits Hampshire College Farm Center Manager Leslie S. Cox for lending both technical expertise and a sobering perspective to the experiment. As Cox points out, wheat farming can be a tricky business, something many the New England settlers discovered too late.

Besides bad weather and pests, decades of wheat crops were sabotaged by a fungus carried by barberry plants growing in wheat fields, Cox said. "The crops were failing, but they never knew why," Cox said.

For all the obstacles, the initial plantings have been encouraging.

To the delight of Kozub, green stalks began poking from the dirt at his patch during a warm spell in April.

"Once it started coming up, I began talking to it - telling it that someday it was going to be part of the best vodka in the world," said the owner of Valley Vodka Inc., which produces V-One vodka.

Growing organic wheat locally makes far more sense than traveling to Poland to buy it, Kozub said. Based on his single-acre experiment, Kozub plans to cultivate 20 or 30 acres next spring.

"Next year, I'm going to grow tons of the stuff."
Saturday August 02, 2008, 8:16 PM
If there is no infrastructure to support wheat conversion, and the climate in New England is not kind to wheat crops, do you think growing a local wheat crop is truly more cost-effective than importing/buying flour?

Do you think the inclusion of "locally grown wheat" will increase the end product's [bread or vodka] desirability?

Do you think government [local, state or federal] should support local growing of base crops like wheat? If so, what form should the support take? For example, tax breaks for local farmers, low-interest loans for start-ups, grants for educational institutions that support the growers with technical advice.