Going Against the Grain

Small-scale grain farms are the next wave of the locavore movement. But can they actually make a profit?

Bill Raben loads a grain truck as he helps to harvest corn on land he farms with his brother Oct. 4, 2008, near Carmi, Ill.
Bill Raben loads a grain truck as he helps to harvest corn on land he farms with his brother, Oct. 4, 2008, near Carmi, Ill.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In one minute, a single person driving an industrial-grade combine through a wheat field can harvest almost 1 ton of grain—about enough food to provide adequate calories to four people for a year. In the same amount of time, California farmer Reed Hamilton, plodding through his tiny wheat field in the Sierra Nevada foothills on his 1950s All-Crop 66 combine, harvests just 50 pounds.

“My operation is barely profitable,” says Hamilton, who leases a 30-acre plot of land in Grass Valley, not far from Sacramento. But he believes dwindling petroleum resources—which conventional farms use directly and indirectly for synthetic fertilizers, operation of machinery and irrigation systems, receiving supplies, and delivering their products around the world—make the industrial food producers that currently feed most of America unsustainable, and he thinks a worldwide shift to local-level food production systems is inevitable.

Hamilton is not alone. Across the country, hundreds of growers have challenged the forces of economics and convention by launching small-scale grain farms and selling their products at local bakeries and farmers markets. “Wheat is finally catching up with lettuce and heirloom tomatoes in the local foods movement,” says Steve Jones, a Washington State University wheat breeder whose department has sent heirloom seeds to startup farms from Los Angeles to Vermont to Alaska. But will local grains ever be as successful and ubiquitous as local fruits and vegetables?

Small-scale grain farmers who sell locally face unique challenges. For one thing, local wheat and other grains lack much of the visceral appeal of local lettuce and tomatoes. Local produce has found a market beyond hard-core environmentalists because of its taste: Anyone will tell you that a local, ripe, in-season strawberry tastes far superior to an off-season strawberry from a gigantic, far-flung conventional farm. But with grains, flavor differences are usually subtle, and it’s a stretch to argue that how a kernel of wheat is handled will significantly affect how it tastes when baked into a loaf of bread. Locally grown fruits and vegetables can be harvested fresher and riper than conventional produce, since the latter must be able to survive cross-country or even international transportation—but grains, dried and packed in sacks, are immune to the rigors of travel. Thus, whether rice or wheat comes from across the ocean or across the road has little impact on its flavor.

Yet ironically, local grains tend to be more expensive than local produce, relative to their supermarket counterparts. One reason for this is the need for specialized equipment, much of it costly and cumbersome, to clean and process grains. In the production of most grains, each seed’s hull must be removed as the first step in readying the product for sale. A centrifuge is often used to separate the heavy kernels from the light hulls, which an aspirator may suck upward and out of the heap. The kernels are sorted by size and quality, too, with broken seeds often reserved for livestock. Eventually, some grain products are milled into flour, while a coarser size setting of the grinding stones can produce “cracked” grains. Though industrial-sized processing facilities are available to serve many grain farms in a given region, they often require minimum batch loads that small farmers can’t meet.

“It’s hard—the industry is not geared toward small farmers,” says Doug Mosel, who grows 50 acres of dry-farmed grains and legumes about 100 miles north of San Francisco. His farm, a four-year-old operation called the Mendocino Grain Project, owns its own equipment for every stage of the process from planting to milling. But other operations do not, and a handful of nearby farmers bring their raw seed to Mosel for processing. Mosel and his neighbors are part of an unofficial, loose collective of several dozen West Coast farms called the North Coast Grain Growers. Members share ideas, information, and sometimes seed and equipment.

Economies of scale aren’t the only advantage large grain farms have over small ones. Federal subsidies, which act as a shield for big farms against weather or turbulence in the market, make life especially hard for owners of smaller farms. Since 1995, $172 billion has been collected by growers of commodities, like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and other major crops. These payments correlate proportionally to farm size, and in the last 17 years just 10 percent of recipient farms have received about 80 percent of subsidies. Corn growers reaped about half that money. Fruit and vegetable growers, both big and small, meanwhile receive a disproportionately small portion.

Subsidies offset the costs of production and allow large grain farmers to comfortably undercut their small-farm competition with the low supermarket prices most Americans now expect. This arrangement poses a constant and frustrating challenge to many small farmers, both of fresh produce and grains. Mosel, for instance, has never received a farmer’s subsidy check, and his prices reflect that: His 100 percent whole wheat flour sells for $2.19 per pound at the local grocery co-op—twice the price of the commodity organic whole wheat flour occupying adjacent bins in the bulk foods aisle.

To keep prices down and stay in business, many small grain farmers bolster their income by growing fruits and vegetables, the star attractions of most farmers markets. If small farmers relied solely on grain production, explains Jones at Washington State University, they would have to charge even more exorbitantly for their products. So instead, says Jones, some farmers draw the bulk of their income from produce sales “and only grow wheat once every few years.” Jack Lazor, the owner of Butterworks Granary in Vermont, grows about 200 acres of wheat, corn, barley, and spelt but pays his bills by selling dairy products—another hot and trendy farmers market category. Lazor says he “piggybacks” his grains onto the milk and butter he routinely delivers to small natural foods stores and bakeries in his area. Indeed, Lazor says he “probably couldn’t make it on grains alone.”

Setting aside the environmental costs of big-scale agriculture, giant Great Plains grain farms are amazingly efficient. Wheat farms may run 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 acres—or bigger—and they support on average just one worker per 378 acres, according to the U.S. Wheat Associates, an industry organization. These giant farms are usually monocrop arrangements, cultivating only one variety of grain, with all plants reaching the same height and ripeness in unison—billions of clones readymade for swift machine harvest.

It’s virtually impossible for small farmers to compete with these well-oiled giants of the grain industry, no matter how many of them crop up. John Navazio, a senior researcher with the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., has seen a tremendous boom in the number of small grain farms in the past half-decade, but big farms continue getting bigger—a trend he says, “even a million 1-acre farms” can’t offset. As long as subsidies and fossil fuels make life easy for big grain farmers, local grains will remain a niche.

And an unusually expensive niche at that. While those of us willing to shell out $10 for a bag of flour or $5 for a loaf of bread may understand intellectually the virtues of buying locally grown, small-farm grain products—our taste buds can’t deny the obvious: Bread made from local grains will never taste as revelatory as a garden-grown strawberry, a tree-ripe organic peach, or a freshly picked heirloom tomato.

Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.