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Pioneering the heritage grains market

Finding the next big thing to grow and filling a need that the market didn’t even really know it had is one way to be a pioneer. Most producers do not typically fall into that category as their chosen livelihood is already a pretty big gamble. One area producer and his cousin have dedicated a small portion of their farms to finding that next big thing in specialty crops, heritage grains, which are varieties of grain grown hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Posted 6/20/19

By Melissa Anderson

Ben Wenzel of Langdon and his cousin, Chad Forsberg, of Wisconsin became involved with a specialty bakery in Minneapolis called Bakersfield. Forsberg found his way to the company thanks to his many years providing fresh produce to the restaurant industry and supplying produce directly to restaurants. The head baker there has now developed a reputation for working with local growers to create some of the region’s finest breads.

“It was a mutual interest for quality grains and local produce. They were looking for the supply, and I was looking for the demand,” Forsberg explained.

This focus on quality presents a unique opportunity for both the growers and the bakery to give customers and consumers the best that can be offered. What started as an idea has now become the chance to experiment with what grains make the best breads along with a return to the roots of craft brewing with malted barley.

“People have been asking for flour and a lot of the craft breweries have found craft malting, and now they want craft grain,” Wenzel said.

The cousins provide an assortment of grain varieties from the modern to the heritage and are pursuing marketing their malted varieties in the near future. What makes the heritage varieties so much more appealing than the modern ones is the characteristics that cannot be found in today’s grains. For instance, some varieties are sought for their flavor. One grain that is popular for this reason is the Red Fife heritage grain. Some of the bakeries that utilize this grain have noticed an improvement in the flavor of their bread since they started using the Red Fife variety.

“They like the richness that it provides into the loaf and commented on the crust formation and how it’s added to a better crust on the bread,” Forsberg shared.

Growing the heritage grains will always be more expensive along with the end product, which provides challenges to get bakers to work these grains into their models. The quality, however, of these grains, both in flavor and performance, gives the heritage grains a leg-up against their modern variety competition.

“They are just a whole different crop. I have a lot of respect for my grandpa and the guys who used to harvest and grow grains,” Wenzel said. “It’s just way different than the genetically modified grains we have now. They grow different. They were just bred to be without fertilizer, fungicide or whatever. It’s kind of like pioneering.”

Of the hundreds of heritage grains that Wenzel and Forsberg tested, so far they have whittled the list down to five or six varieties that they have grown enough to market for profit and are working on around 225 varieties in various stages of field testing.

“So far, we will probably have 20 varieties, between malt and flour, and durum varieties to sell. Next year we should have about a 100 different varieties,” Wenzel said.

What makes heritage grains so different from their modern cousins of the “mass market grains”? Mass market grains, which make up most of the wheat we eat, are developed and grown for their resistance to disease and ability to produce higher yields. A great deal of wheat you see in the supermarket would fall under this category today.

Heritage grains and heritage wheat, on the other hand, are different in that these strains come from hundreds of years ago and have not been altered or hybridized to be more successful in today’s agricultural economy. These older strains of wheat and grains have been gaining more and more attention for the reasons Wenzel and Forsberg have shared but also the way they differ in growing. How growers use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for heritage grains is very different than what is done for the mass market varieties. This is one perk of growing the heritage grains as they have the ability to leech the nutrients they need from the soil so much better than their modern counter parts.

The fertilization and fungicide application for heritage grains has been the biggest learning curve for Wenzel as the heritage grains have no need for an over-abundance of either.  Wenzel typically has to split apply and uses micronutrients to try and keep the height down as well as reduce lodging. The biggest thing is keeping your fertilizer down. These varieties were bred to not need a lot of fertilizer as they have deep roots.

“It’s just fun to experiment with your fertilizer and your micronutrients. I could do it on my modern varieties and get $5 a bushel, and it doesn’t really pay for my time to do it. But playing around with these things and getting $25 to $30 a bushel makes it worth my time to be a farmer,” Wenzel said.

Disease amongst the heritage grains is a big factor that Wenzel has to stay on top of in order to have any grain to sell at the end of the year. This is where the modern varieties have the advantage as many of the heritage grains are highly susceptible to development of disease.

Harvesting these varieties that typically have a taller stand has not been too difficult with modern machinery despite what might be expected. Wenzel explained that while the straw is different it “still chews through the combine well”.

“The idea is just getting your fertilizer ratio down at the right times then harvesting it doesn’t seem to be problem.”

How the heritage grains react to storage has also been a learning experience, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue. The skins of the grains have a softer texture than the modern grains. Within in the coming weeks, the test of how well these grains handle long term storage in grain bins will have results.

“We are going to be getting to the bottom of a bin in the next couple weeks and make sure it’s all good,” Wenzel said.

So far, Wenzel has only grown a couple hundred acres. The sales for what has been produced are not huge as Wenzel and Forsberg bring in totes of cleaned grain rather than semi loads to different cities and mills. It is the payout for their effort that is making the endeavor worth their while.

Wenzel and Forsberg sees the future of heritage grains as very bright, especially in finding and supplying niche markets within milling, baking, and especially malting. Forsberg sees the malting area as the primary focus for the use of heritage barley.

“There is a small segment of brewers who are looking for or striving for authenticity in certain brews.  For example, Waldmann Brewery in St. Paul is a place that was operating as a saloon in the 1800s to prohibition,” Forsberg explained. “This brewery specializes in pilsners. Taking many awards, they have a serious interest in producing a pre-prohibition style pilsner that is authentic in every way down to the barley and malt that is used.”

To meet this specific demand, Forsberg has worked to find several varieties that were collected in Minnesota over a hundred years ago and used for brewing in the region at the time. Summit is one variety and Hanna another that Forsberg will focus his efforts on. These grains play a role in the authentic creation of a historical beer.

The opportunity to corner the market for this type of product is a huge one as the craft brewing industry shows no signs of slowing down. Forsberg sees using this same idea of collecting grains specific to regional or historical styles as an appealing venture- t he chance to provide brewers looking not only for authenticity but for a story or history that can be woven into and told by the beer itself through these heritage malting varieties.

“Nobody else is growing any of these varieties at all. Nobody else will have any volume of commercially malted of any of these grains. It’s a unique product in the market place which gives brewers unique tools to work with,” Forsberg said.