Growing grain is returning to the Champlain Valley

Photo courtesy of Naga Bakeshop in Middletown Springs.

New England was once the breadbasket of the United States, however, the Northern Grain Growers Association tells us that Vermont has not grown grains on a large scale since the 19th century. Yet, we can still grow grains. Today, scattered across the Champlain Valley we find grain growers, mills, millers, livestock operations feeding grains they grew as well as farmers growing for the commodity grain market.

Ben Haigh and Alyth Hescock operate Tio Farm, a newly launched certified organic farm in Shoreham. They planted their first fields of wheat in the fall of 2021, using a Hard White Winter Wheat variety called Redeemer. Alyth had done fieldwork for his uncle Joe at Elysian Fields Farm from the age of 12, and loved it. The cousins approached the soil preparation with care, planting oats and field peas and grazing sheep on the fields in the months leading up to wheat planting. Midsummer 2022, a good harvest of wheat was taken off with a borrowed combine and the straw residue was bailed up to use for bedding at Round Bale Farm, Ben and Hilary Haigh’s livestock and dairy operation nearby. Morrison’s Custom Feeds, an organic feed mill in Barnet, bought that first crop, paying $43/ton. In 2022, production was rotated to 25 new acres and this spring a good stand of green wheat plants awaited the warming weather. Depending on the quality of the grain harvested this summer, if the protein level and other measures are right, the wheat berries could become bread flour. 

These days mills come in different sizes and shapes. Champlain Valley Milling in Willsboro, N.Y., fits the traditional description of a mill. It is not large but the business buys grain from a range of suppliers and parts of the country. They perform other important custom functions for local grain growers, who can send their grain to Willsboro to have weed seeds removed and flour made that growers can then sell in their own retail packaging or sell to bakers. 

Champlain Valley Milling cleans the harvested grain for Ben’s uncle Joe, who grows around 50 acres of Redeemer wheat on the 800 acres that supports Elysian Fields dairy farm in Shoreham. Joe first saw grain growing as a nice sideline that provided straw and feed for the dairy herd. He soon realized that hard red winter wheat is a good thing to grow in clay in the fall and harvest in usually dry midsummer. It can form part of a crop rotation, along with sudan grass and hay that controls weeds and enriches the farm soils. Red Hen Bakery buys wheat berries from Elysian Fields, mills the grain into flour at their bakery in Middlesex and turns it into Sesame Whole Wheat Bread and the bakery’s creemee cones. The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op sells the farm’s wheat berries in their Bulk section.

Naga Bakeshop in Middletown Springs, Back Door Bread in Charlotte and Bicycle Mill Baking in Monkton are all retail bakers who also mill their own flour. Equipping their businesses for milling allows them to buy from local grain growers. Each business trumpets the value in flavor and freshness of milling just ahead of baking. Elysian sells grain to Naga Bakeshop for their pizza dough and new flour CSA. The other two miller/bakers source their grain from Aurora Farms/Nitty Grain Company in Charlotte. 

BAKER LIZ TROSTEL uses pedal power from her stationary bicycle to power her grain mill in Monkton.

Tom Kenyon and his son, David, operate Aurora Farm as a grain farm. They cultivate 160 acres of grain, wheat and corn, in a much larger land base that stretches from Monkton to Charlotte and fields along the shores of Lake Champlain. Nitty Gritty cornmeal and corn bread mixes can be found up and down the Champlain Valley in stores small and large. Jim Williams of Backdoor Bread bakes entirely with whole grain flour and 70% of what he mills is locally grown wheat from Aurora Farm and Rye from Thornhill Farm. This miller, with experience running bakeries in Rhode Island and Vermont, observes that there have been many improvements in locally grown grain over the years, in the grain itself, in grain testing and in infrastructure support. The Kenyons supply 40% of the freshly milled grain at Bicycle Mill Baking. Baker Liz Trostel is also miller Liz Trostel, using pedal power from her stationary bicycle to power her grain mill.

For Heather Darby of UVM Extension Service and one of the founders of Northern Grain Growers Association, the growers are there but there needs to be more mills and businesses that contract with farmers to grow crops. Efforts are afoot to build a grain processing plant in Ferrisburgh. Todd Hardie, founder of Caledonia Spirits and Barr Hill gin, is also the developer of the emerging Champlain Valley Grain Center, which is in the early stages of the permitting process for a business that hopes to receive grain from farmers on the day of (or day after) harvest. They will clean the grain, store and dry it in a silo, and clean it again to mill for bakers and make whiskey on site.

The farming landscape of the Champlain Valley is a multi-faceted one that supports many forms of plant and animal growing. The improvement in grain quality arose from a process of farmers, millers and bakers and researchers educating each other. Alyth Hescock speaks of the old equipment network that exists and neighbors helping neighbors as an extension of that network, the pleasure he takes in seeing combines operating in fields and resting in farmyards. Naga Bakehouse speaks of the power of grain to reinforce the agriculture community. Readers of this Guide have many points of access to the agricultural landscape, too, as buyers of bread, bakers of cornmeal muffins, sprouters of wheat berries, and videographers of grain combines operating on the gently rolling landscape of the Champlain Valley.

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