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Gleason Grains set to expand

BRIDPORT — Citing a mounting interest in locally grown organic grains, Ben and Theresa Gleason are expanding their Bridport milling operation that has been the forefront of Vermont’s reemerging grains industry.
Gleason Grains is already the largest operation of its kind in the state, but armed with a grant from the Farm Viability Program, the farm is doubling production this year with the help of three other Addison County farmers.
The $15,500 Farm Viability grant will help the Gleasons expand and upgrade their mill, storage and drying facilities to handle additional wheat being grown by Weybridge farmer Bob Bowdish, Bridport farmer Bob Waterman, and Shoreham farmer Ken Van Hazinga.
Ben Gleason said he began considering the expansion around a year ago, and finalized the decision in the fall, right before the winter wheat went into the ground during the September planting season.
“There’s just been so much talk for so many years about the lack of available flour here in the state,” Gleason said.
Seeing a demand in particular for a “sifted” flour more like white flour, and with encouragement from customers like the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Gleason began recruiting local farmers to grow organic wheat on their land.
For local farmers like Bowdish, a dairyman who milks 180 cows, wheat represents a cash crop that can supplement an income hard hit by the catastrophically low price of milk. Ben Gleason will harvest and mill the winter wheat come July, and will pay the farmers for their grain based on the price he paid for wheat a couple of years ago. Prices have since dropped below that level.
“Most of the dairy farmers in Vermont used to grow grains of one sort or another,” Gleason said. “Then it just became cheaper to bring it in from the Midwest.”
But now that organic grain prices are so high, Gleason said there’s more interest locally in growing grains for animal feed — and the mounting numbers of “localvores” in the region are interested in wheat for human consumption, too.
That’s particularly true when it comes to sifted flour, which is easier to bake with and closer in texture to white flour. Gleason’s biggest customer is the Red Hen Bakery, and the bakery anticipates doubling its prior orders from Gleason Grains. But with sifted flour on the menu, he anticipates additional retail demand, too. American Flatbread, as well as other nearby bakeries, have expressed interest in baking with Gleason’s grains.
Red Hen introduced its first loaf made entirely from Vermont wheat last year, using grains from a Charlotte farm in addition to some from Gleason Grains. The loaf was named after Cyrus Pringle, a 19th-century Vermont botanist famous for developing varies of wheat.
In the 1850s, during Pringle’s lifetime, Vermont farmers from the Champlain Valley to Orleans County cultivated 40,000 acres of wheat.
Today, just a handful of farms grow wheat in any substantial amount, but interest in the crop is growing. The Gleasons built their mill in 1988, and since then have carved out a niche in the local grains market. They raise soybeans, black beans, seed clover, hay and wheat on 100 acres of land, and process the wheat to make whole wheat flour, pastry flour and wheat berries.
Since then, his biggest sales year came after the 2008 harvest, when Gleason sold 35 tons of flour and wheat berries.
Numbers dropped a little last year, but demand stayed high: Right now Gleason said he’s out of wheat.
“We just didn’t have enough to satisfy all the demand,” he said.
With more fields in production, he anticipates bumping up his numbers this year to between 70 and 90 tons of flour. With that growth he’ll need to expand his millhouse and buy more equipment.
“This has always been a real shoestring operation,” Gleason said, and he’s relied on a lot of “handwork” with the grains. By streamlining his millhouse, and bringing in distributors to handle deliveries, Gleason hopes he will make his operation more efficient in the long run.
Proponents of increasing wheat and grain production in Vermont point to the state’s agricultural heritage as reason to sow wheat again in this region. But others argue that western wheat production is more efficient, and Vermont farmers will never be able to compete with grain farmers in other parts of the United States.
To that, Gleason said he’s tried to keep his prices level with the Midwest, because he wants to make sure his flour is affordable for bakers and other customers. He acknowledged that growing wheat in Vermont is a tough business, which is why he thinks he’s been doing it without much competition in the state for a long time.
But he remains a firm believer in supporting Vermont’s reemerging grain industry.
“I think it’s important for people to be able to know the farmer whose growing the food for them,” Gleason said.
And he said that he’s often running into people who exclaim, “You’re the one who grows that wheat!” Customers often tell him that even though the gluten content of his wheat is lower than that of commercially produced wheat, Gleason’s grains have more flavor than wheat purchased from far-away fields.
“That’s really pretty satisfying,” Gleason said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at kathrynf@addisonindependent.com.

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