Thor Oechsner showing screens from the seed cleaner.
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. As with any food-grade organic grain venture, marketing, varieties, rotations, storing and processing are all integral to his operation.
Market diversity is key to ensuring a stable cash flow. Oechsner works with Farmer Ground Flour (a cooperatively owned mill), Wide Awake Bakery and numerous individual accounts, in addition to a Brooklyn distillery. Working with distilleries provides a good market for grain that does not meet the quality standards of other markets. In fact, crops that otherwise would be downgraded at the mill can fetch a price similar to that of high-quality grain when sold to a distillery. However, this type of diversified marketing comes at a cost: the farmer's time. "I do a lot less farming and a lot more talking," said Oechsner.
Before you can market it, you have to grow it. Weed control is essential in an organic operation like Oechsner's. He uses a long crop rotation designed to keep the weeds off balance and to 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, his 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, said Oechsner, 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 of growing tips, it is time to go back. "Try not to let anything grow," said Oechsner, in order to deplete the reserves in the roots. Timely spring tine harrowing 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. One mistake Oechsner made was over-applying chicken manure. You need enough for the crop, but not too much for the weeds, he said. If you over-apply you "get weeds, weeds, weeds."
Varieties can also be important for successful organic production, and research is needed in this area. But one variety Oechsner likes is Bay forage oats. They have a big leaf that helps shade weeds. Even though it is a forage oats, he can get more than 100 bushels per acre. Other varieties are chosen for taste rather than agronomics. For example, Warthog wheat is a taste winner, but its yield is rather low.
An important step between field and plate is processing. For Oechsner, 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 (pictured above) has three sets of screens and can process about two tons per hour. QC is a source of screens that will custom make screens for your cleaner.
Beetles, borers, weevils and Indian meal moth can all be a problem in storage. Oechsner 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, so he uses pheromone traps (from Gemplers) and sticky fly tape hung inside the tops of bins and even totes to control them.