From Field to Flour
Thor Oechsner farms 600 certified organic acres in Newfield, New York, where he grows a wide variety of crops including hard red spring and winter wheat, milling rye, corn, triticale, oats, spelt, emmer, buckwheat, hay and red clover for seed. He shared tips on marketing, varieties, rotations, storing and processing -- important if you plan to venture into more food grade organic grains.
Market diversity is key to helping ensure a stable cash flow. Thor not only works with Farmer Ground Flour, Wide Awake Bakery and numerous individual accounts, but also Brooklyn distillery. Working with distilleries provides a good market for grain that does not make the grade. Distilleries actually want the low falling numbers; the lower the better. Crops that otherwise would be downgraded at the mill, “turn to gold on the end (of the still)” and the price works out to about the same as for high quality grain. This type of marketing comes at a cost though, the farmer’s time. “I do a lot less farming and a lot more talking,” Thor told us. But Thor thinks it is worth it. Grain is the one thing that is not avail-able locally for eaters. Working with the bakery selling locally is a great way to connect to people with how their food is grown.
But before you can market it, you have to grow it. Thor was very humble, but you can see from the beautiful fields with few weeds, his rotations, fertility and variety selection are working together successfully. Thor’s long rotation is designed to keep the weeds off balance and incorporate fallow periods to control the difficult perennial weeds on many of his sites. Crops are planted at a different time every year, so there is no time for any one weed to build up. Briefly the rotation is wheat (with fall manure); followed by forage rapeseed cover crop that winter kills; followed by a spring fallow with field cultivation every two weeks; then buckwheat harvested with a swather, windrowed and combined; then rye is no-tilled into the stubble; clover frost seeded into rye, first cutting left for organic matter, second cutting for seed; corn (with 1-2 tons per acre poultry manure); at last cultivation annual ryegrass is broadcast, ryegrass winter kills; then oats are planted with no additional fertility. The fallow period really helps, but you have to keep on top of it and go in every two weeks or so to cultivate. If you look across the field at dusk and see a glow, Thor tells us those are the growing tips and it is time to go back. You want to “try not to let anything grow,” to deplete the reserves in the roots. Timely spring tine harrow and cultivation when the weeds are still small enough to go through plenty of soil in row are also critical to his weed control program.
Balancing fertility is another goal for Thor. One mistake he has seen was over-applying chicken manure. You need enough for the crop, but not too much for the weeds he told us. If you over-apply you “get weeds, weeds, weeds.”
Varieties can also be important for successful organic production. There is a lot of research to be done in this area. But one variety Thor likes is Bay forage oats. They have a big leaf that helps shade weeds. Even though it is a forage oats, he can get over 100 bushels per acre. Other varieties are chosen for taste rather than agronomics. Warthog wheat was the taste winner last year. But it turns out the yield is rather low.
An important step between field and plate is processing. The first steps are done on the farm. All crops go through a squirrel cleaner first. This key piece of equipment aspirates and cleans. An additional seed cleaner has different screens to sort out particles larger and smaller than the seed you plan to eat. The first screen removes the large bits, the second sizes and the last takes out the small stuff. This cleaner from 1910 (shown left) has three sets of screens and can process about 2 tons per hour. A larger cleaner on site will be up and running soon. If you are looking for a cleaner, Thor tells us, “if it has a lot of screens it will save you a lot of money.” QC is a source of screens that will custom make screens for your cleaner.
A few last tips from Thor were on storage. Beetles, borers, weevils and Indian meal moth can all be a problem in storage. Remember storage is “like your bank account.” Thor uses diatomaceous earth (diatoms) to create a fog to coat the inside walls of the silos, and fogs into the grain as it goes through the squirrel cleaner. This material is a food grade product and 95 percent of it blows out during the last cleaning process. Diatomaceous earth does not seem to work on Indian meal moth though. For them Thor uses pheromone traps (from Gemplers) and sticky fly tape hung inside the tops of bins and even totes.