Five years into his grand experiment, Brian Walden finds himself knee-deep in a niche of local agriculture that barely exists around here: growing, processing, baking, malting, and doing whatever it takes to sell locally grown grains to local mouths.
After a long history of cultivation in East Coast states like Virginia, grains have transitioned into an almost entirely Midwest-grown commodity, virtually untouched by the movement to grow food closer to home.
Walden doesn’t think he’ll change that by harvesting a few acres of wheat and barley—but he does think he’ll meet the demand that’s just beginning to bubble up at local breweries and among at-home bakers.
“If I don’t do it, somebody else is going to,” Walden said. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t try, because I’ve got the ability to do it right now and I’ve gotten this far.”
Pockets of people like Walden have cropped up across the country in places such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, sparking conferences and nonprofits to connect millers, brewers, bakers, and growers.
Locally grown grains can be found on at least one other Virginia farm—but only if you signed up for a share of Moutoux Orchard’s soldout CSA this year. Rob Moutoux used to sell raw grains and flours at a pair of D.C. farmers markets, but he now funnels it all into a year-long “full-diet” CSA, offering grains alongside meat, dairy, eggs, and produce.
“It’s a hard product to sell,” he said.
The learning curve
Walden started planting grains at his 500-acre farm southwest of Charlottesville as a rotational crop that jived well with raising grass-fed cattle. Walden grew up on the land, but parts of it had barely been farmed by contract growers during his childhood (his parents worked off farm). Walden, now 31, and his wife, Mihr, returned seven years ago to do just that.
After figuring out “what was flat and what wasn’t,” and how to use secondhand farm equipment, Walden considered the best use for the undulating pasturelands where he is finishing work on the family’s new home.
Grains, he said, were the obvious option.
“The grains are extremely productive, they grow during the winter months when nothing else does, they’re harvested early,” he goes on, because he cannot help his excitement, “plus, they’re super nutritious, delicious, and should be more of our food system.”
Walden would like to see more Virginia farmers working wheat and barley and even black beans into their crop rotations. But he understands why they aren’t.
It’s taken the better part of five years for him to amass the long list of machinery needed to harvest and process grains into salable products—like the organic, whole wheat flour that’s now being baked into pizza crusts at Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie just up the road.
To make it this far, Walden first had to become a collector of farm antiques, starting out with a $250 combine (which both threshes the wheat stalk and harvests the grain) and a 1930s-model grain mill. He recently invested in a 60-year-old Clipper seed cleaner, complete with fading vintage font, which will allow him to process more seed than he can grow on his own.
The machinery collection he amassed—and the “gear-head” mentality required to maintain it—is far more than the average vegetable farmer would need to buy to supply a small CSA with grain, too, Walden said.
Carl Griffey, a wheat breeder at Virginia Tech University, said the learning curve for small-scale grains extends beyond infrastructure. Finding the right seed, storing the product, and growing it organically are all more difficult with these crops, he said.
Walden was able to get “surprisingly good yields” this year with a hard red winter wheat developed to withstand the humidity of the Mid-Atlantic region. His midsummer harvest produced enough wheat, in fact, to get him dreaming about the possibilities.
Walden tried selling his first batches of black beans, wheat berries, and whole wheat flour through a grain CSA and at farmers markets, but people didn’t seem to recognize the unfamiliar raw products, let alone know what to do with them.
Walden is now on a mission to make the raw ingredients that are piled up in his barn “more edible”—that is, to process them into “value-added” products like tortillas, black bean dip, and beer—and to do as much of it in-house as possible. He’s taking a course in the fall to perfect his barley malting skills so he can sell the product to local breweries (that’s right, totally local beer). Plans to build ovens and dreams about using a large, water-powered mill to make flour are also in the works.
Inspired by other growers making a go of grains across the country, Walden is determined to see how far he can take it.
“I’m following it,” he said. “I think it’s going somewhere and, unless I give up or hurt myself, it’s not going to stop.”
Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson