When you think of agriculture in the Adirondacks, you may not think of waving fields of grain. New England was the “breadbasket” of the United States until the late 1800’s. Global markets have driven local grains out of favor. Flour is flour, right?
Many grain growers and “bread heads” would whole-heartily disagree. Have you ever eaten cornbread made with freshly ground cornmeal? Or eaten a shortbread cookie made with freshly ground buckwheat? The difference in flavor, nutrition, and community impact is significant.
History and Facts
Indigenous people have been growing their entire diet in the Adirondack region for thousands of years. This included grains like maize or flint corn that is dried, crushed, and traditionally eaten in corn mush, corn cakes, and porridge. There is evidence that Haudenosaunee people in the Adirondacks have been growing maize or flint corn as part of “three sisters” gardens, with climbing beans and winter squash for a very long time before European colonists arrived.
After European colonization in the 1600’s, settlers grew corn, beans, wheat, rye, barley, oats, and flax for home use on subsistence farms and homesteads. Like most food, homesteaders and families would grow a small plot of grains in their kitchen garden for their own use through the year. They would bring their harvested grains to the community grain processing mill, or “grainery” to grind it into flours.
During the 1700s and 1800s, Upstate New York agriculture was dominated by wheat and grains. Buckwheat in particular was an important crop in the southern parts of the Adirondacks. It wasn’t until the late 1800s with the increase in rail and water transportation that competitive national markets caused farms in Upstate New York to shift away from growing grains. Similarly, in Vermont, during the 1800’s over 600,000 bushels of grains were harvested commercially per year. That number fell to less than 20 bushels in home gardens years later.
After local grains have fallen out of favor, expensive equipment and facilities for harvesting, drying, grinding and storing grains have become obsolete. Without the needed infrastructure and market demand, this made it a more expensive and a more difficult crop for farmers to grow. This, however, is changing with the increase in demand for local food and regional efforts to bring back local grains. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as home baking and panic buying was clearing shelves of conventional flour, consumers started to become more aware of the more stable local grain markets. Organizations like the Northeast Grainshed Alliance and Northern Grain Growers Association are working to revitalize local grain economies in the Northeastern United States.
How Grains are Grown
When we refer to grains, we broadly mean things like wheat, oats, corn, buckwheat or barley that are grown for human consumption. Usually, grains, like wheat, are the harvested dried seed pod of a plant. Today, China is the top wheat producer, followed by India, Russia, and the United States.
Wheat can be planted in the spring or fall. First, the soil is prepared and amendments are added, like composted manure. Then, farmers use a tool called a seed drill to plant the seed. This tool is usually attached to a tractor and plants the seeds at a consistent rate for ideal spacing and coverage.
Then, the wheat grows. At first, it just looks like grass. Eventually, it grows tall and develops seed pods. After the plants have begun to dry out, farmers use a tool called a combine to harvest the crop. A combine is a large machine that both harvests the seed pods, and separates the edible parts of the plant from the non-edible parts of the plant. From there, wheat berries are sent to a mill, where they are ground into flour.
While there are fewer grain growers in the Adirondacks, they are certainly not obsolete. We are so lucky to have an organic grain farmer in Essex County. The Wrisley family of Adirondack Hay and Grain grows certified organic grains for food, feed and fuel. They grow an assortment of crops, from hay and feed for animals to buckwheat and wheat.
You can see wheat being harvested on their farm below
How to Enjoy More Local Whole Grains
This month, Dan Rivera of Triple Green Jade Farm in Willsboro, NY shared his knowledge of local whole grains in a webinar with the Adirondack Experience Museum on Blue Mountain Lake and Albany Public Library. Dan and his partner Kimmy run a bakery on their farm and sell their bread, crackers and baked goods at local markets and retailers. In the discussion, Dan offered a few tips for home bakers looking to utilize more local whole grains.
You can view the whole recording from the presentation below.
Dan’s Tips to “Give Wheat its Shot at the Spotlight” in Your Kitchen:
Get Started With Whole Grain Cookies
Dan says that cookies are great to jump in with whole grains because you’re not looking for a rise like a yeasted bread. He suggests Ellie Marchovitch’s “12 Grains of Christmas” collection of whole-grain Christmas cookie recipes, including Amaranth Fruit Filled Rolls, Buckwheat Linzer Cookies, and Cornmeal Butter Cookies.
Start Small with a Bread Recipe
Another easy place to start is by gradually incorporating some local whole grains into a simple bread recipe, like the famous New York Times Beginners No-Knead Bread. He suggests starting with adding a small amount of whole-grain flour along with your standard all-purpose white flour.
Know the Shelf Life of Whole-Grain Flours
Realize that freshly ground flour won’t stay fresh forever. What gives whole grain flours more flavor, texture, and nutritional value is the presence of oils from the seeds. These oils will go rancid if your freshly ground flour isn’t stored properly. Dan says if you buy local flour, it will stay fresh for a month when it’s stored on the counter, 6 months when it is stored in the refrigerator, and 9 months when it is stored in the freezer.
Loaf of sourdough bread from Triple Green Jade Farm
Where to Buy Local Whole Grains
Local grains are much harder to find than most things, but they are so worth the added effort to find them! Some farms in the Adirondack region that grow their own grains, and there are a few businesses that use local grains:
Triple Green Jade Farm uses local grains ground into flour in their baked goods. You can also buy fresh ground flours on their website.
For wholesale buyers that can grind their own flour, Adirondack Hay and Grains and Pull Behind Farm may be an option for them. Locally milled flour, not necessarily locally grown flour, can also be purchased from Champlain Valley Milling, now located in Willsboro, NY. Their flours are available at most co-ops in the area.
Do you enjoy whole grains? Comment below and let us know.
Photo at top: Grain production at Adirondack Hay and Grain in Essex, NY. Photo by Ben Stechschulte