Finger Lakes Grain Farmer Shares Knowledge, Harvest

Posted: September 1, 2011

On September 16th, the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group hosted Thor Oechsner, owner of Oechsner Farms and founding partner of Farmer Ground Flour and Wide Awake Bakery, as the fifth speaker in the Sustainable Agriculture Seminar Series. An energetic farmer with a good sense of humor, Thor enlightened and entertained the audience with the story of his farm, mill, and bakery.
Thor Oechsner inspects a maturing wheat crop.  Photo courtesy Rachel Lodder.

Thor Oechsner inspects a maturing wheat crop. Photo courtesy Rachel Lodder.

Located in Newfield, New York, just south of Ithaca, Oechsner Farms has been a lifetime in the making. The grandson of a German baker, Thor credits spending time on his uncle’s dairy farm in Bradford County, PA as his first foray into the world of farming. As a teenager, Oechsner was able to convince his parents to allow him to turn their suburban yard into his first corn field. Oechsner now farms approximately 600 acres of certified organic grains on rented land throughout the Finger Lakes region.

Oechsner graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree from Cornell and by 1991 had started a three-acre vegetable farm while also running a Volkswagen and Audi repair business. The auto repair business helped fund his farming passion and also satisfied his passion for diesel engines. By 1997 he was able to sell his VW/Audi repair business and start spending more time farming while teaching diesel mechanics at a local vocational college. Finally, in 2003 he was financially able to start farming organic grains full-time on 500 rented acres. To keep costs low, his only land purchase was 15 acres where he maintains facilities for equipment and grain storage, bagging and packaging operations, and seed sorting and cleaning.

Like many innovative organic farmers, Oechsner has developed a diverse operation in terms of both products and markets. His main cash crops are corn (feed and food grade), wheat (soft white winter, hard red winter, and hard red spring), oats (feed and seed), rye (mill and seed), buckwheat (mill and seed), red clover (seed and soil building), emmer/farro (food grade, especially pasta), spelt (food grade), grass hay and straw (horse market). With all of these crops, Oechsner likes to focus on growing heritage varieties or other unique cultivars to capitalize on niche markets while enhancing species diversity and spreading risk.

Diversity is also a central theme of Oechsner’s marketing. Focusing on five major markets, Oechsner sends most of his milling-type grains to Farmer Ground Flour, sells seed to other farmers, sells oats and corn for feed, sells straw for bedding and mulch, and perhaps his most intriguing and newest market is distilleries. Smiling, Oechsner explained that the distillery market is a fun, rapidly growing, and excellent market for which to grow. He feels that the people involved are fully dedicated and genuinely value the specific varieties of grains. He highlighted Brooklyn Gin as one customer we may have heard of, but got most excited about the Finger Lakes Distillery which recently hired a fourth generation moon-shiner from Alabama to run their distillery. According to Oechsner, this man is a true craftsman who fully appreciates the milling-type ryes – such as Danko – because of their larger kernel size.

With such a variety of cash crops to manage on a wide range of soil types, Oechsner said he uses two basic crop rotations, letting the soil quality of each field determine the rotation. For lower quality soils he uses a seven-year rotation with the first four years in hay followed by corn, buckwheat, and rye. For the better quality soils he utilizes a six-year rotation that starts out with red clover, followed by corn, oats, wheat/spelt, buckwheat, and rye. In between these cash crops, Oechsner seeds red clover, annual rye grass, and forage rape as cover crops. And while these are his basic rotations, he acknowledged that one must always be flexible to account for environmental and market demands.

Although Oechsner has settled into successful crop rotations and management practices, he stated that attempting to build markets is a totally different, and more difficult experience. This is where the value-added part of his business comes into play: Farmer Ground Flour and Wide Awake Bakery. Farmer Ground Flour is a joint milling venture between Oechsner Farms and Cayuga Pure Organics to offer a value-added product line where they can have complete quality control. At this point, they are still hoping that it will financially pay off, but even so, they do not question their decision to get into the milling business. The way Thor sees it, a flour mill offers them a value-added product line, responds to a shrinking land base (by producing more income with less land), and answers a strong New York City demand for a local, organic flour brand.

Freshly baked bread at Wide Awake Bakery is crafted from grains grown by Oechsner and milled by Farmer Ground Flour. Photo courtesy Rachel Lodder.

In addition, as a part-owner of Wide Awake Bakery, Oechsner sees a similar benefit to the bakery business as he does the milling operation. Both offer direct-marketed products to consumers and help build a recognizable brand while diversifying markets and income streams. And while Wide Awake Bakery does happen to operate a year-round 700-member bread CSA, Oechsner is more interested in the role that the bakery serves as the “ultimate marketing tool” for the unique and heritage grain varieties that he produces. Instead of leaving someone a bag of flour and asking him or her to try it out, it is much easier to sell someone on the product when he can bring a loaf of freshly baked bread made of that very same flour.

Although Oechsner was not able to bring any of the bakery’s products to share with the audience, he did bring several cases of specialty flour to send home with attendees. From buckwheat to farro and corn grits to whole wheat, the selection was more than enough to sell us on the products and farming practices that Oechsner has worked to refine.

More information about Farmer Ground Flour is available at their website.

By Brian Bates, Department of Geography