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The Grain Challenge

03/17/08 5:55PM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) Wheat may be making a come-back in Northern New England, according to gardener, author and commentator Ron Krupp.       

(KRUPP) One of the greatest needs of the "eat-local" movement in Vermont is the demand for local wheat production. Currently in the Green Mountains there are only a handful of wheat growers, and very few wheat varieties are being developed on organic farms. Basically, plant breeding of wheat has become all but a lost art.

Most available varieties were developed with climates, soils and management techniques quite different from those we have in New England. In the future, farmers will need to regain technical skills to produce their own genetic crosses of small grain varieties and learn how to make selections from their new grains under organic management. The last well-known breeder in the Green Mountains was a University of Vermont biologist, Cyrus G. Pringle of Charlotte, who made major contributions in wheat breeding during the mid- to late 1800s.

But there is some hope for re-establishing grain growing in northern New England and New York. A 2007 grant from the Northeast Sustainable Research Education Program, also known as SARE -- managed out of the University of Vermont -- is helping to rebuild farmer knowledge of plant breeding with regard to grain varieties.

In May 2007, nineteen varieties of spring wheat were planted at Jack Lazor's Butterwork's Farm in Westfield. Three came from Cyrus Pringle's wheat varieties, five came from the North Dakota State Wheat Breeding Program, ten from Washington State's Wheat Breeding Program, and one modern variety was included. As a result, modern varieties are being mixed with heritage varieties, such as Pringle's "Defiance," in an effort to grow and select improved wheat varieties of high baking and animal feed quality that are suitable for growing conditions in Vermont.

One local farmer and baker is rising to the grain challenge in a unique way. Erik Andrus of Ferrisburgh grows his own grain for a European-style artisan bread. Before he can bake the bread, he has to thresh and winnow the grain and mill the flour himself. Andrus uses Civil War-era technology, including an old-fashioned reaper-binder pulled by his powerful Percheron horses, Molly and Star.

Sam Sherman, owner of Champlain Valley Milling of Westport, New York, located near the lake, processes organically-grown wheat from the mid-west and Canada. Sherman told me that the organic grain market is growing about 20 percent a year, and he could use about 6,000 acres of soft and hard wheat grown in the Champlain Valley. Sherman currently mills the grain and sells the flour to bakeries and distributors throughout the Northeast. So it sounds to me like there is great potential for growing wheat and other grains in the northern counties of New York and Vermont. After all, we were the breadbasket of New England some 100 years ago.
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