On menus from Sofra to Sweetgreen, local is king. Chefs lovingly highlight the nearby farms where their proteins, produce, and dairy were raised. Beer and spirit makers name their bespoke offerings after the nooks and crannies of New England. And who doesn’t love buying a fresh crusty loaf of bread straight from a neighborhood bakery?
Yet many food and beverage purveyors have long overlooked a key ingredient: Grains. The flour or barley rarely gets a mention on a menu. And that’s because compared with the vast wheatfields of Kansas, grains here are easy to overlook; only 2.2 percent of the food-grade grains consumed in the Northeast are grown in the region.
“Farm-to-table has never really applied to grains, they’ve always felt like a commodity staples,” said Tony Rosenfeld, chef and co-founder of B.Good and One Mighty Mill. “I know the day when blueberries start getting picked or strawberries or tomatoes. But I never thought twice about the wheat harvest.”
But back in February 2020, a group of about a dozen local brewers, farmers, maltsters, and bakers began to try and change that, gathering at the Trillium Brewery in Canton to talk about how to create a market for Northeast-grown grains. Today, their work has expanded to create a collaborative of over 100 businesses throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey called the Northeast Grainshed Alliance. It’s envisioned as a way to rebuild a regional supply chain that existed here over 150 years ago, back when more than 25,000 grain mills spread across every corner of the country.
The Grainshed Alliance founders say its arrival is well timed, as supply chain disruptions during the pandemic demonstrated the volatility of US food systems. They also point to climate benefits — fewer greenhouse gases emitted than transporting grains from the Midwest or Europe, and more biodiverse farmland.
Then there’s taste.
“There’s something really special when you get a specific heirloom varietal that is grown on a specific farm that has a ton of flavor,” said Rosenfeld, whose One Mighty Mill in Lynn produces pretzels, breads, and other products from organic wheat harvested in New York and Maine. Last year they processed over 777,800 pounds, doubling their production from the year prior. And soon its customers will know more about it.
This fall, the Grainshed launched a new logo for flour and bread bags, beer cans, and spirit bottles to help promote their efforts. The Square Foot Project will detail the amount of local grains — measured in square feet — that wind up in a beer (4 square feet) or a loaf of bread (18 square feet), drawing a clearer link between a sustainable supply chain and the food on your table.
That link is clear when you’re holding an heirloom tomato at a farmer’s market, with the farmer right there, said Emily Cayer, coordinator of the Northeast Grainshed Alliance. But wheat doesn’t quite work that way.
“How do we do what’s been done with farmers markets in terms of vegetables, meat, and dairy?” Cayer said. “People know those things come from farms now, but grain, because it has to go through that secondary process of being milled or malted to be edible, is lost in that connection loop.”
Of course, the first step is growing the grains here.
Wheat, barley, malt and other grains were grown for centuries in New England, but as agriculture grew to a larger scale, grain production gradually centralized in the Midwest. That’s partly due to New England’s rocky soil and limited space, partly due to economics. Wheat production just isn’t as profitable, per acre, as some other crops, said Amy Halloran, the upstate-New York based author of The New Bread Basket, a book that tracked the rise of the local grain growing efforts.
“You can make a lot of money off a couple of acres of vegetables,” she said. Making comparable profits on grains requires “hundreds of acres.”
Still, some growers are trying. Francis Domoy saw promise in creating value-added grain crops at his farm in upstate New York, where he could command higher prices than commodity grains while also replenishing his fields. He’s grown his winter barley plantings from 38 acres to 140 over the last 10 years after finding seed varieties from Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland that suit the Northeast climate.
“Barley has to carry its own weight, financially. It’s not a silver bullet, but it fits into our rotational plan to create a sustainable farm,” he said. “And it adds tremendous amount of organic matter back into the soil.”
And folks like Andrea Stanley have stepped in to help.
Stanley is the co-founder of Valley Malt and Ground-Up Grain, where she manufactures malt and flour grown in the Northeast, and serves as a conduit between farmers, brewers, and bakers throughout the region. The Grainshed, she said, was a way of formalizing and expanding those partnerships, and it’s already having an impact: She’s seeing more dairy farmers growing grains to diversify their businesses, which in turn prompts seed suppliers to step up production of grain varietals that can thrive here.
Now the Square Foot Project is a way of engaging the consumer in that conversation — she compares it to the famous “Got Milk?” campaign, albeit on a far smaller scale.
“We felt like our path to really making our industry viable was really about consumer awareness,” she said. “We also wanted to educate restaurant and bartenders about the square foot impact and what that means for local food systems, agriculture, and the local economy.”
Barry Labendz, whose Kent Falls Brewing Co. in Kent, Conn., uses locally sourced grains from farms like Domoy’s, helped conceive the new Square Foot logo. He hopes it serves a larger purpose for consumers, forcing everyone to ask: “How much beer do we need to make and people need to drink, to not just keep a barley farm afloat, but support a region of viable barley farms,” he said.
The Grainshed is already seeing results. In addition to growing more barley, Domoy has more than doubled his wheat acreage over the last three years. Stanley is planning to begin to fill silos with local grains, and both Trillium and Foam breweries have signed on as customers (Trillium has also bought its own farm in North Stonington, Conn., where it’s growing 25 acres of rye and corn). And Rosenfeld is expanding One Mighty Mill into New York, where it’ll open a second mill and production facility.
The Grainshed, and the connections One Might Mill has made through it, were essential in planning One Mighty Mill’s growth, he said. And that growth means the Lynn bakery can start selling its next best thing: Sliced bread.