When you think of agriculture in the Adirondacks, you may not think of waving fields of grain. However, New England was actually the “breadbasket” of the United States until the late 1800’s.
Global markets have driven local grains out of favor. Today, China is the top wheat producer, followed by India, Russia, and the United States. But flour is flour, right? Not really. The difference in flavor, nutrition, and community impact is significant.
History of Grains in the Adirondacks
“Grains” 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.
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. 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 are working to revitalize local grain economies in the Northeastern United States.
Growing Grains in the Home Garden
If you’re already pouring over seed catalogs and mapping out your garden for next spring, consider adding a little space in your garden to grow your own grains! While most home gardeners won’t have the space, time, or weeding power to grow enough of any one grain to last you through the winter- it is a really fun and rewarding process to grow a grain from seed to plate.
A great grain to start with is cornmeal. To grow dry corn, select a seed variety specifically indicated as “flour” corn or “milling” corn, not sweet corn. Plant by seed after Memorial Day in weed-free soil. Space seeds about 1-2 feet apart. It’s important to plant the corn in a block or circle format, not in a straight row, as tighter spacing helps with pollination by wind. You will only start to harvest your dried ears of corn once the plant really starts to die back. The plant will start to look like dried decorative corn stalks. Harvest the ears of corn and shuck them. Push the kernels off the cob into a dry sealed container like a bucket or large food storage container. For the freshest cornmeal, store the whole kernels just like this and grid your cornmeal only as you need it. Or, you can grind your cornmeal in a big batch, and freeze it to keep it fresh.
To grind your cornmeal, you will need a grinder. There are many different types, from manual grinders, large countertop appliances, to attachments for stand mixers. Just make sure the mill you have at home is intended to mill corn. After your first grind, you may want to sift out the larger pieces with a fine mesh strainer and regrind the larger pieces until you reach your desired consistency. Use your fresh cornmeal to make cornbread or polenta.
How to Enjoy More Local Whole Grains
Kimmy and Dan Rivera are the owners of Triple Green Jade Farm in Willsboro, NY where they are “bringing an old farm back to life… with good bread.” They have a focus on using ancient grains, like spelt, emmer and eincorn, and mill their own flour with locally grown organic grains.
Kimmy and Dan offer a few tips for using local whole grains in your home baking:
Go With Organic Whole Grain Flour- For the best results, you want a flour that is whole grain and doesn’t use any pesticides in the drying process. Make sure the bag of flour indicates that it hasn’t been sifted. Flour that utilizes the whole kernel of the grain offers the most in flavor, texture and nutrition.
Weigh Your Ingredients- Use a kitchen scale to measure out your ingredients by grams. This will ensure the most consistent results.
Add A Little Whole Grain to Your Favorite Recipe- Another easy place to start is by gradually incorporating some local whole grains into a simple recipe you’re familiar with. Swap in a whole grain flour for about ⅓ of the all purpose flour your recipe calls for. You may need to add a little more moisture, but let your dough sit for 10 minutes to give it time to hydrate before adding any extra water.
Know the Shelf Life of Whole-Grain Flours- Freshly ground flour won’t stay fresh forever. What gives whole grain flours more flavor, texture, and nutritional value is the added presence of oils from the seeds that isn’t found in regular bleached “all purpose” flour. These oils will go rancid if your freshly ground flour isn’t stored properly. If you buy local whole grain 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.
Local Grain Recipe
Whole Grain Maple Walnut Muffins
From Triple Green Jade Farm
- 226 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)
- 65 grams Milk
- 150 grams Eggs (about 3)
- 688 grams Maple Syrup
- 550 grams Whole Grain Flour
- 165 grams Walnuts
- 7 grams Sea Salt
- 18 grams Baking Powder
Measure ingredients by grams with a scale. Makes 12 large muffins. We use jumbo liners in 6-muffin tins. A large ice cream scooper works well to fill muffins with batter. Bake at 350F convection (or 375F non-convection) for 10 minutes, then turn tins around for another 10 minutes. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean.
Where to Find 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 pick-up at the Winter Saranac Lake Market or at their farm. They also host events on their farm where they teach whole-grain bread baking, pasta-making and much more. They will also ship bags of flour by mail.
- You can buy tortillas made with locally grown corn in Essex from Adk Hay and Grain from Vermont Tortilla Company at their location in Shelburne, VT or at the Hub on the Hill in Essex, NY.
- Essex Farm also offers regionally grown grains to their members as part of their free-choice CSA program, and sells cornmeal and tortillas in their farmstore made with corn grown on their farm.
- Locally milled organic flour from Champlain Valley Milling, not necessarily locally grown flour, can be purchased at most co-ops in the area.
- You can find Farmer Ground Flour (made with organic grains grown in New York State) at the North Country Food Co-Op in Plattsburgh, Nori’s Market in Saranac Lake, Green Goddess Natural Market in Lake Placid, and Four Seasons Natural Foods in Saratoga Springs.
- Maine Grains and Wild Hive Farm also sell their products online.
- For wholesale buyers who can grind your own grains (like wheat, or corn), check out Adirondack Hay and Grains and Cedar Hollow Farm.
“New England was actually the “breadbasket” of the United States until the late 1800’s. …. Global markets have driven local grains out of favor.”
New York especially! The Empire State was a major player back in the day when it came to agriculture. We have some of the most interesting history regards this matter. Hops, wheat and many other crops, bees inclusive, were a major theme in New York back in those days, when physical exertion and archaic implements were the means for working fields and for putting food on the tables of those early, enlightened Americans. Like everything else we’ve slipped away from the old ways all in the name of progress and greed and look at our troubles! Fortunately, some of the old ways, especially regards farming, are still retained in the psyche’s of American farmers whom you will especially find in those who have “Local” attached to their signage.